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U.S. Civil Rights Division In The Hot Seat, Again

Conservatives have made no secret of how they feel about the Obama administration's approach to civil rights. Republican analysts have been pointing out examples of what they call major overreach for almost two years.

"Instead of filing the really traditional kinds of cases the division has always gone after, where there's real discrimination going on, they are trying to push and stretch the laws to reach areas the laws were not intended to cover," says Hans von Spakovsky, who worked at the civil rights division in the George W. Bush Justice Department.

Tom Perez, who leads the civil rights division under President Obama, says he found something unusual when he returned to the department a couple of years ago.

"I will never forget when I had the privilege of working on the Obama transition, of talking to people who were here and had been here 20 years," he says, "and [who] quite literally broke down in tears during the transition and told me, 'Tom, I feel like I have PTSD.' "

An 'Intense' Political Climate

The civil rights division has always been a hotbed of political controversy.

During the Reagan years, conservatives tried to reshape the unit by hiring like-minded lawyers and focusing on different kinds of cases. (One of the most controversial involved whether a school that barred interracial dating could get a federal tax break.)

And in the most recent Bush administration, the inspector general said Justice Department officials took politics into account when they made hires.

But veterans like von Spakovsky, who now serves as a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says the Obama civil rights division is taking some of the same liberties with employment decisions and cases. A conservative-leaning website has filed a lawsuit seeking background data and resumes for new employees hired under the current leadership of the civil rights division.

And media outlets including the National Review and Fox News have attacked the department for such stances as taking the side of a Muslim teacher who wants 19 days off during the school year to make a religious pilgrimage, and for pushing school systems to allow boys to wear makeup and girls' shoes to class.

John Dunne, who led the civil rights unit under President George H.W. Bush, says the climate is much hotter now.

"The intensity has been focusing principally around individual rights as well as voting rights, so I would say that yes, it's a little more intense than it was 15, 20 years ago," Dunne said.

Justice For All?

Lately, most of the conservative backlash has focused on a Philadelphia voter intimidation case.

Members of the New Black Panther Party were sued by the Bush administration for allegedly threatening voters in a polling station. The Obama civil rights division decided to back away, enraging some conservatives and making the case a staple on television.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) told the attorney general at a recent hearing that he's alarmed by that decision.

"There's clearly evidence, overwhelming evidence, that your Department of Justice refuses to protect the rights of anybody other than African-Americans to vote," Culberson said.

Attorney General Eric Holder sharply denied that accusation. "The allegations that somehow, some way this Justice Department does things on the basis of race is simply false," Holder said.

He reminded Culberson how children walked past violent mobs to integrate schools only about 50 years ago. "To say that the Black Panther incident, wrong though it might be, somehow is greater in magnitude or is of greater concern to us historically, I think just flies in the face of history and the facts," Holder said.

Justice Department ethics investigators seem to agree.

Two sources familiar with the matter tell NPR that they've finished investigating the decision to bring the Panther case and the decision to walk away from some of the charges. The sources say they turned up no wrongdoing by either Bush or Obama lawyers.

No one seems to think that will put an end to the controversy over the civil rights division, though. Conservatives are now saying the ethics office operates under political bias because its new leader used to work for Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.