On Monday afternoon, a press release came out of the United States Attorney’s Office here in Phoenix. It announced “the formation of a Civil Rights Unit to coordinate civil rights prosecution, training and outreach in the state of Arizona.”

 (You can read the complete release below.)

My first thought was: That sounds like an excellent idea.

My second thought was: Didn’t we already have one of those?

Apparently not, and this signals an additional element in the expanded brief of the new U.S. Attorney, Dennis Burke. When we spoke with him in the fall, soon after he had been confirmed, he was very open about the rebuilding—of morale and other things—that had to be done in a post-Alberto Gonzalez Department of Justice.

New U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, Arizona Attorney magazine, Jan. 2010

When I asked him about the District of Arizona, where the focus long had lain with counterterrorism and immigration, he agreed those would continue to be central to the mission of his office. But he added significant conversation about criminal activity in Indian Country—for a number of good reasons, above and beyond the large land areas in his jurisdiction. Replacing the nation’s first Native American woman with a white male—however qualified—as United States Attorney had to sting the Obama Administration at least a tad. Over the years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also has harmed its “reservation cred” for its declination letters, in which it declines to prosecute criminal cases there, but provides no rationale. That leaves tribal authorities with the option of pursuing the matter themselves, but with no guidance as to whether the feds thought the case was weak or if they were simply too busy. And if the tribes pursue the case, they can assess far lesser penalties if they win a conviction. Given all that, Dennis Burke has made it an important part of his activities to nurture the relationship with the tribes.

Besides Indian relations, Burke also raised civil rights as an increasing area of focus. Asked if he meant housing, or election violations, or employment, he answered “All of those.”

Was that lip service? Today’s announcement suggests the answer is No.

Call it karma or something else, but the announcement came just hours before a significant ASU Law School lecture. The title of this year’s John P. Morris Memorial Lecture (sponsored by the Black Law Student Association) was “Civil Rights in the 21st Century.” And the speaker? NAACP CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. I couldn’t attend, but I am hoping the law school taped the speech.

Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP CEO

Mr. Jealous, of course, is more than a seriously cool name. He is the youngest leader the organization’s ever had, and a Rhodes Scholar, to boot. Before his current position, he served as director of the U.S. Human Rights Program at Amnesty International. Most impressive to us ink-stained wretches, he also once worked as a newspaper reporter and editor and as Executive Director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Let’s hear it for the news! (We like all of the Amendments, but the First does come first …)

So our state was writ large with civil rights today.

Farther east, health care reform also passed out of Congress Sunday in a historic vote—or a historic miscarriage of justice, depending on whom you ask. And civil rights came up there too.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi moved mountains (and horse-traded mountain ranges) to win the Democrats and President Obama a come-from-behind victory. And she even was quoted as analogizing this health care legislation to civil rights legislation.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi signs health care legislation

Hyperbolic? Maybe. But her words came on the heels of out-of-control vitriol by health care opponents spitting on a Black legislator and shouting racist comments as he entered the historic building. That, combined with the size of the legislation and the generation-long changes it could effect, made Pelosi’s analogy less fabulous than it would have been otherwise. So a new law that has to do with insurance premiums and prescription co-pays could be enveloped in the mantle of civil-rights history.

Well, if she’s right, then it’s a civil rights victory unlike any we’ve seen before. This one, for instance, is cheered by large parts of corporate America. Perhaps many business leaders are simply happy to have the debate over and certainty in its place. But others may be pleased at the substance of the law, which aims to control medical insurance costs.

As Monday’s “Marketplace” program reported on American Public Radio, “The stock prices of health care companies showed healthy gains, one day after the House passed historic health reform. Investors apparently think the legislation will be good for the health care industry.”

They may be right—or they may be overstating it. Listen to the story at http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/03/22/pm-health-industry

So cheers to all of us: Props to the U.S. Attorney’s Office (and Dennis Burke) for creating a new division, and invoking the names of hate-crime victims Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. in the process. And cheers to all those who debated the health care issue freely—thank you, Bill of Rights, and that good old First Amendment!

[Press release follows]

U.S. ATTORNEY ANNOUNCES CIVIL RIGHTS UNIT FOR ARIZONA

PHOENIX – U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Dennis K. Burke announced today the formation of a Civil Rights Unit to coordinate civil rights prosecution, training and outreach in the state of Arizona.

The Civil Rights Unit Chief will have district-wide authority on civil rights matters. Burke named Assistant U.S. Attorney Claire Lefkowitz, of the Tucson Office, to spearhead the work of the new unit, and to coordinate efforts with federal prosecutors in the Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Yuma offices of the U.S. Attorney.

“The U.S. Department of Justice is committed to and has had an historic role in upholding the civil and constitutional rights of all individuals, including the most vulnerable members of our society,” said U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke.  “The creation of the Civil Rights Unit in Arizona ensures civil rights cases will be given top priority, whether they be the prosecution of hate crimes, or protecting the victims of human trafficking, discrimination based on disability, or civil rights abuses under color of law.”

The Unit Chief will also work in coordination with the District Law Enforcement Coordinator to develop a protocol with law enforcement agencies that investigate civil rights cases in order to ensure cooperation and effective enforcement.  Training will be conducted to inform agencies of enhanced federal statutory authority on civil rights, including the new Hate Crimes Statute 18 USC Section 249, also known as the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act,” signed into law by President Obama in October 2009. The new law has a broader reach than preexisting hate crime statutes, and effectively criminalizes violent acts when they occur because of actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person. The statute also protects a wider class of victims of hate violence motivated by the victim’s gender, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identify. Previous law required the government prove that a hate-motivated crime be committed to prevent a victim’s participation in federally protected activities, such as voting or attending school.

“Today’s announcement by U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke establishing a Civil Rights Unit will continue to enhance the FBI’s ability to investigate Civil Rights matters,” said Special Agent in Charge Nathan T. Gray, of the FBI Phoenix Division. “The addition of a new Hate Crimes statute will provide the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office the ability to effectively address Civil Rights allegations in the State of Arizona.”

The Unit Chief will also work with a new bilingual Community Liaison to meet with consular officials with responsibility for foreign citizens living in Arizona, as well as other relevant organizations and community groups. 

RELEASE NUMBER: 2010-047(CVU)