Three of the biggest names in voter suppression have a message for Attorney General Jeff Sessions: The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department needs an extreme makeover. In an open letter published this week, former DOJ officials Hans von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams joined Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and 22 other signatories in calling on Sessions to clean up the “ideological rot” left behind by the Obama administration and get rid of the “entrenched federal bureaucrats” who have zealously “jettisoned precepts like equal enforcement in favor of political and racialized dogmas.”
In the letter, the authors ask Sessions to shift the Civil Rights Division’s priorities: Instead of concentrating on issues like racism in American policing, as it did under the leadership of attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, they suggest that the Sessions DOJ should put its energy toward putting an end to “politically-driven pursuits against state photo voter identification requirements” and tackling voter intimidation against white people. “Our nation is changing. The mosaic image of America is growing richer in color and detail as each decade passes,” the authors of the letter write. “For these reasons, the American people deserve a Division that seeks to represent and protect all citizens.” They continue:
Together, we have witnessed longstanding conventions held from the mid-20th century prove outmoded in recent years and discovered new fronts in need of protection where civil rights are concerned—with particular respect to voting. Discrimination, dilution, and poor processes will always be constants, yet the victims can vary in our contemporary era.
Asked for an elaboration on which “longstanding conventions” in civil rights advocacy have become outmoded, a spokesman for the Public Interest Legal Foundation—the law firm where Adams is president—cited a pair of legal disputes over who counts as a “native inhabitant” of Hawaii and Guam. “We essentially argue that discrimination is a human problem that, if our government is to combat it, it must not be seen exclusively through old lenses,” the spokesman said in an email.
The publication of the letter to Sessions did not come as a surprise to civil rights lawyers, who are well-acquainted with many of its arguments and signitories. Kobach most recently drew headlines when it turned out he was one of Donald Trump’s sources for the claim that millions of people had voted illegally in the 2016 election. Von Spakovsky and Adams, meanwhile, are both prominent alumni of the George W. Bush–era Civil Rights Division, where they promoted the idea that election fraud is an urgent national problem and championed state voter identification laws that disproportionately depress turnout among minorities.
Von Spakovsky, now a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, has arguably done more than any other conservative activist to incubate and popularize the myth of widespread voter fraud. Adams, whose law firm is dedicated to fighting against “lawlessness in American elections,” is perhaps best known for resigning from the Justice Department in protest after the Obama administration dismissed voter intimidation complaints against the New Black Panther Party in 2009. Adams told Fox News he thought there was a “hostility” in the Civil Rights Division “to bringing cases on behalf of white victims for the benefit of national racial minorities.” A 2013 report from the DOJ’s inspector general found there was not enough evidence to support the claim.
“What they really want to do—and this has not been a secret, but they’re making it patently obvious—is use the Civil Rights Division as an engine for vote suppression,” said Samuel Bagenstos, who served as a political appointee in the division from 2009 to 2011 and is now a professor at the University of Michigan Law School.
Bagenstos pointed to a section of the letter about hiring practices, in which the authors argue political appointees should be given more hiring authority so as not to “leave the decisions in the hands of career bureaucrats who are reliably opposed to President Trump’s agenda.”
“They’re trying to make the case for repoliticizing hiring,” Bagenstos said, noting that a scathing 2009 inspector general’s report about the improper use of “political or ideological affiliations in assessing applicants” in the Bush-era Civil Rights Division conveniently went unmentioned in the Kobach/von Spakovsky/Adams letter. “This would take us back to some pretty dark days,” Bagenstos said.
The letter to Sessions arrives at a tense time for the civil rights community, with activists and attorneys around the country waiting to find out who will be nominated to lead the Civil Rights Division and whether that person will try to marginalize the division’s career staff.
The authors of the letter are eager to figure that out as well. In a press release published on his law firm’s website, Adams is quoted as saying that, after years of watching the “radicalized” Civil Rights Division advance “leftist causes,” Sessions “has an opportunity to begin the course correction necessary to protect all Americans from civil rights abuses.” In light of this, Adams says, “the most important position General Sessions will fill in the DOJ is the [Assistant Attorney General] for Civil Rights.”
Is Adams himself angling for the role? His spokesman declined to make him available for comment.