Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General during President Obama’s administration once said, “The responsibility of the attorney general is to change things and bring us closer to the ideals expressed in our founding documents.”
This week I was proud to represent the Urban League Movement as I testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to the confirmation of William Barr as Attorney General of the United States. As the nation’s top law enforcement officer and leader of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Attorney General is responsible for safeguarding our civil and constitutional rights. In light of this Administration’s relentless attacks on the enforcement of our civil rights laws, our nation desperately needs and deserves an Attorney General who is committed to that mission and to our country’s ongoing progress toward equal justice and racial equality.
For the past two years, the Justice Department has been led by an Attorney General intent on restricting civil and human rights at every turn. From rolling back voting rights enforcement to reverting to failed and harmful criminal justice policies, Attorney General Jeff Sessions used his office to carry out the extreme, anti-civil rights agenda he had advanced for decades in the U.S. Senate.
The nation needs an Attorney General who will dramatically change course and enforce federal civil rights laws with vigor and independence. Based on his alarming record, we are convinced that William Barr will not do so. Indeed, in a recent op-ed, Mr. Barr called Jeff Sessions “an outstanding attorney general” and offered praise for his anti-civil rights policies. it’s clear Mr. Barr intends to follow the same regressive roadmap Jeff Sessions has drawn.
The confirmation of William Barr as Attorney General, who espouses former Attorney General Sessions’ policies, would enormously exacerbate our nation’s current civil rights crisis.
In comments to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last month, we raised the following concerns about the Justice Department’s civil rights actions under Sessions:
- Overturning a memo from former Attorney General Eric Holder aimed at reducing mass incarceration by avoiding mandatory sentencing. Sessions instead ordered federal prosecutors to seek the maximum criminal charges possible.
- Proposing to eliminate the Community Relations Service, established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – a key tool that addresses discrimination and community conflicts.
- Announcing the Justice Department’s ‘school safety’ plan, which that militarizes schools, overpolices children, and disproportionally harms students of color.
- Ordering a sweeping review of consent decrees with law enforcement agencies relating to police conduct – a crucial tool in the Justice Department’s efforts to ensure constitutional and accountable policing. The department also tried, unsuccessfully, to block a federal court in Baltimore from approving a consent decree between the city and the Baltimore Police Department to rein in discriminatory police practices that the department itself had negotiated over a multi-year period.
- Arguing that it should be easier for states to purge registered voters from their rolls – reversing not only its longstanding legal interpretation, but also the position it had taken in the lower courts in that case.
That tells us that there will be no redress of the Sessions’ blunders on civil rights.
African Americans face racial bias at every stage of the justice process. are more likely to be stopped by the police, more likely to be detained while awaiting trial, are charged with more serious crimes for the same offenses and sentenced more harshly than white people.
In 2018, after years of arduous work, we finally saw enactment of bipartisan legislation that finally begins to reform our criminal justice system through the First Step Act and the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018. William Barr’s record on criminal justice places these achievements at serious risk and gives us no confidence that these hard-fought reforms would be implemented:
- As Attorney General under George H.W. Bush, Barr pursued harsh criminal justice policies that escalated mass incarceration and the foundering “war on drugs”.” More recently and alarmingly, he has supported mandatory minimum sentences and latitude for abusive police officers.
- Barr’s 1992 book, “The Case for More Incarceration,” argued that the country was “incarcerating too few criminals.”
- Barr led efforts in Virginia to abolish parole, build more prisons, and increase prison sentences by as much as 700 percent.
The Attorney General has a duty to vigorously enforce some of our nation’s most critical laws; to protect the rights and liberties of all Americans; and to serve as an essential independent check on the excesses of an Administration. The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that William Barr is unfit to serve as chief enforcer of our civil rights laws.
Marc H. Morial, President and CEO
National Urban League