The longer that President-elect Joe Biden takes to select his pick for US attorney general, the more pressure builds on him to staff his Justice Department with a diverse leadership team.
What Biden had initially anticipated would be announced by Christmas Day, has stretched into the new year. That breaks with recent norms for an incoming president to make attorney general among his first Cabinet picks. It’s also heightened the calls for Biden to address issues of diversity and racial injustice through his selection to lead the department.
Not only is it the most prominent job left for Biden to fill, the attorney general also has purview over many of the issues feeding racial injustice.
Tensions are particularly high since, despite all the lobbying from outside groups, three of the top remaining frontrunners to lead the Justice Department are all White, and two of them are men.
Sources have told CNN the top candidates continue to be former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, federal judge Merrick Garland and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates. As CNN has previously reported, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who is Black, remains in the mix. Picks for other top Justice Department jobs are expected to be more diverse, and there is a desire inside Biden’s transition team to roll out those selections at the same time to showcase the new administration’s commitment to diversity, sources say. That, too, could be adding to the long wait on the announcement for attorney general.
Transition officials have told CNN they are in regular touch with civil rights groups about their attorney general selection and the Department of Justice more broadly, and that they value their perspectives and advice on both topics.
The diversity push is coming from a wide roster of civil rights activists from organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE). All told CNN they have been in constant contact with the Biden transition team to dole out hundreds of recommendations of people they’ve vetted for positions throughout the administration.
“We are recommending over 80 people for various (leadership) positions” at the Department of Justice and Secret Service among other law enforcement agencies, NOBLE President Lynda Williams told CNN.
Williams acknowledged that the next attorney general may not be and does not need to be a person of color, but if he or she is, then it will be “a bonus.”
In the end, Williams said the nominee must understand “they represent something larger than themselves” and that there are major issues regarding race in this country, “even if it does not sit right at their feet.”
Among the most prominent voices for a culture change at the DOJ has been Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network. In an early December meeting with Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and their team, Sharpton voiced his preference that the next attorney general be Black, and have experience within the federal government with a concentration on civil rights issues.
Sharpton however seemed to give an implicit nod to Jones recently when he followed up mid-December comments pushing for a Black attorney general by saying he could also accept a White candidate with “a proven civil rights background that’s going to handle this heightened racist bigoted atmosphere.”
Jones was the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama under President Bill Clinton when he successfully prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan who were responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.
A year of strife
Following a year marked by racial protests and strife, calls for federal charges and investigations into the police shootings that sparked widespread protests this summer largely went unanswered. Just days after George Floyd’s death, then-Attorney General William Barr said Floyd’s death had “driven home” a longstanding breakdown in the criminal justice system, and Barr vowed to “find constructive solutions” in the weeks and months ahead “so that Mr. Floyd’s death will not be in vain.”
But little reform has occurred.
Senate Democrats blocked a Republican policing reform measure in late June because they said it fell short in addressing the very concerns expressed during the summer unrest.
Among other things, Democrats said the proposal did not include an outright ban on chokeholds and they could not decide whether to overhaul qualified immunity for cops so it’s easier to sue them in civil court.
A federal civil rights investigation was launched in Floyd’s death and, at the time, FBI Director Christopher Wray said things would be “moving quickly.”
That investigation, along with several other probes launched this summer will likely be among the first issues many expect the next attorney general to confront immediately
Last week, the Justice Department drew renewed outcry when it announced there was insufficient evidence for federal charges surrounding the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, a Black child in Cleveland who was holding a pellet gun in 2014 when he was shot by an officer who believed it was a real pistol.
That case is a reminder that much of the strife over police brutality toward minorities predates the Trump administration, and that rank-and-file DOJ staffers have been pushing for internal changes for years.
Darlene Brooks has worked at the Justice Department for 33 years, and she says it will take more than just a few diverse voices to change the White-centric culture that has been embedded over the course of many administrations.
“Even with Attorney General (Eric) Holder, I was excited for him, but it was like it stopped there,” Brooks said. “If the Department is riddled with career people who don’t embrace diversity and only do a paper exercise, then it’s futile and there’s no change.”
Brooks serves as the President for the DOJ Chapter of the group Blacks in Government, where she leads a team that advocates for the equal opportunity and professional development of Black government employees. Brooks hopes new leadership at the Justice Department will usher in greater diversity in the workforce, will put a renewed focus on civil rights, and will place a priority on police reform.
“It’s not about defunding or taking money away from the police, which is how people keep misinterpreting it,” Brooks explained. “It’s really about getting into these police departments and educating their practices.”
Restoring a commitment to equal justice
To do that, Sharpton said it is incumbent on the federal government to take the lead immediately.
“The reason that we could not deal with local law enforcement and prosecutors is because of the intrinsic relationship between the local police who were involved in those situations and the prosecutors in those counties,” Sharpton told CNN. “Someone that is sensitive to that understands why the federal government and the Justice Department needs to intervene. … So there’s a sensitivity practice and an experienced practice that people of color could bring in that was totally absent in the last four years.”
Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the Justice Department should prioritize reinvigorating federal civil rights enforcement, enforcing the Voting Rights Act, dealing with police brutality and cases in the education space that needs scrutiny.
“I think this is one of the most important decisions that President Elect Biden will have to make finding the right attorney general, who can restore a commitment to equal justice under law for all, who can make protection of racial justice and civil rights a top priority. These are incredibly important principles and values of the country needs right now in its next attorney general, so I’m glad that the next administration isn’t racing to announce a decision and being really thoughtful and careful in deciding who they put forth for this important position,” Clarke said.
National Urban League President Marc Morial was in the December 8 virtual meeting with Biden, Harris and six other civil rights groups. “We generally spoke about the diversity of the Cabinet and the need for there to be a maximum number of African Americans serving in the Cabinet, so that the President can be successful with an emphasis on racial justice and addressing those issues,” Morial said.
“The most important thing is that the leadership team be diverse and have a strong commitment to civil rights and racial justice. In this environment that goes beyond simply the attorney general and it goes to the other keys position. President-elect Biden clearly said to us, and it goes without any reservation, that racial justice is going to be a part of everything he does. Racial justice is going to be a part of everything he does whether it’s an agricultural or commerce, whether it’s an economic policy,” he continued.
“We know that the tip of the spear is police community relations. This police issue will not quit. Police relationship systemically with black communities is broken and its costing people their lives.”