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Starving Civil Rights In the Trump Era

Donald Trump is poised to defund the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and his Supreme Court pick bodes poorly for the future of civil rights.

  • Nicole Austin-Hillery
February 3, 2017

Cross posted at The American Prospect.

Federal civil rights protections that expanded significantly under President Obama have been dealt a body blow just two weeks into the Trump administration. The Justice Department faces draconian cuts to programs that ensure the safety of women, guarantee equal rights to members of the LGBTQ community, and that investigate police departments with a history of abusing and discriminating against African Americans. And Trump’s selection of Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court is a bad omen for civil rights.

At the Justice Department, several critical civil rights programs are on the chopping block. These include 25 grants that underwrite the Violence Against Women Program, and the Community Oriented Policing Office (COPS), which works with cities and neighborhoods to reduce tensions with police. The new administration has also targeted the already-underfunded Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which ensures that counsel for the indigent is a right, not a privilege.

But most damaging of all are Trump’s plans to cut funding for Justice’s Civil Rights Division. This section has historically fought to protect and defend the rights of disenfranchised Americans, most notably in the areas of voting, housing, and employment. And just how much does it cost the taxpayers to fund this supposedly exhorbitant enterprise? The division’s budget was a mere $147 million in fiscal 2015, representing 0.6 percent of the Justice Department’s $23.5 billion budget. Just by way of comparison, the Pentagon spent $437 million on military bands in 2015. One plan the Trump administration is considering would cut the Civil Rights Division’s budget by 20 percent, or a little less than $30 million.

The inspiration for these budget cuts is a blueprint from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which White House budget planners are reportedly using as a guide. Trump has promised to shrink the federal workforce, but his Justice Department cuts smack less of a good-faith effort to streamline government than of an ideological assault on longstanding federal protections that shield the powerless from the powerful.

Trump’s selection of Gorsuch to replace Scalia also bodes poorly for civil rights protections. After Senate Republicans refused to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, Trump pledged to change the face of the Court with a selection of his own. In his public list of potential nominees, Trump made crystal clear that his nominee’s civil rights record would not be a primary, or even a secondary, concern. His selection of Gorsuch confirms that civil rights is no priority for Trump.

Both as a judge and as a private practice lawyer, Gorsuch advocated for making class actions, one of the most effective tools for protecting the rights of the least powerful Americans more difficult for plaintiffs to use against big business. He consistently ruled against employees in cases where they use Title VII, enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to claim workplace discrimination based on race or gender.

Most notably, Gorsuch joined the majority in a 10th Circuit ruling that held the Hobby Lobby craft store could, based solely on the owners’ religious objections, refuse to pay for contraception for employees covered under its health plan. This ruling favored privately held for-profit secular corporations, and the individuals who owned or controlled them, over the rights of female employees. Such a holding opens the door to limiting rights to other groups with whom a privately held corporation may disagree based on religious belief.

Historically, the Supreme Court has been a key civil rights defender and champion. This was particularly true during the tenures of Chief Justice Earl Warren, and of Justice Thurgood Marshall, when court rulings brought about historic civil rights changes by opening doors to education equity, and to equal employment protections for women and, more recently, for members of the gay, lesbian and transgendered communities. But it appears unlikely that the Warren or Marshall legacies will continue with the Court’s next iteration. Citizens who need protection may well be left helpless if we end up with a Court that fails to look beyond rigid ideology, or to recognize that the Constitution is for all people regardless of station.

In his inaugural speech, Trump noted that Americans “share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny. The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.”  Yet his moves to defund civil rights programs directly contradict that pledge. And his appointment of a Supreme Court justice who does not champion civil rights hardly demonstrates “an allegiance to all Americans.”

Trump wants to “make America great again.” But his actions fail to recognize that the nation’s greatness comes from guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens. These actions include crippling programs that defend the legitimate rights of the vulnerable, and tapping a justice to the high court who appears to believe that the hard-won civil rights protections of the 20th century are just one more judicial construct to be obliterated in the 21st. The result of these efforts will be to weaken the nation, not strengthen it.