'We have clearly reached the point where the status quo is unacceptable.'
By Brad Friedman on 10/30/2007, 1:36pm PT  

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, issues a statement in response to today's extremely contentious subcommittee hearing with star-witness John "Minorities Die First" Tanner. We live-blogged the hearings here (now updated with videos!)

Conyers had said, at one point during the hearing in response to Tanner's "all is well" testimony: "I hope that you will take what is directed at you as constructive, because the one thing I am concerned about is that we stop having happen what has happened since the 2000 elections. And then you come here to stagger our imagination by telling us that 'it's never been better,' its never been worse!"

His post-hearing statement, which follows in full below, concludes notably: "We have clearly reached the point where the status quo is unacceptable."...

For Immediate Release: October 30, 2007

House Judiciary Committee Grills Department of Justice Chief John Tanner on His Recent Controversial Statements About Minorities

(Washington, DC)- Today, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties heard testimony from Justice Department Civil Rights Voting Section Chief John Tanner and voting and civil rights experts about the Voting Section's civil rights enforcement record as well as the impact of voter ID laws on minority voting. Members took particular issue with Tanner's recent statement: "...our society is such that minorities don't become elderly the way that white people do. They die first." Video clips of Tanner's responses to committee Member questioning can be found HERE. Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr.'s (D-MI) opening statement follows:

Last Congress, the Judiciary Committee was united in its effort to reauthorize the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Too many Americans face still barriers to exercising their right to vote and vigorous enforcement of this right by the Department of Justice is essential. Unfortunately, the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, which is the primary agency charged with this responsibility, still faces many challenges, three of which I will highlight here.

First, we need a clearer understanding of how the Civil Rights Division interprets its responsibilities regarding photo identification requirements. Earlier this year, the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights issued a report criticizing the Voting Section's enforcement efforts and cited the preclearance of the Georgia photo identification requirement as a major example. In particular, the Commission cited Voting Section Chief Tanner's failure to fairly and vigorously enforce preclearence requirements of Section 5 as a result of partisan political concerns. The Commission concluded that this failure damaged the Section's procedural integrity and undermined its credibility.

I am particularly troubled by Mr. Tanner’s recent comments regarding the effects of photo identification requirements on minority voter participation. He said, for example, "Our society is such that minorities don't become elderly the way white people do; they die first." While Mr. Tanner has already demonstrated questionable judgment in overruling the decision of Justice Department lawyers to object to the Georgia photo ID law, this statement --- at least in my opinion --- demonstrates a severe lack of appreciation of what the Section's mission should be --- that minority voters should not be disenfranchised.

Second, serious management issues have also been raised with the Section’s core responsibility of Section 5 enforcement. Under Mr. Tanner's tenure, the corps of Section 5 analysts has been reduced from 23 to 8 positions. In addition, the Judiciary Committee is aware of complaints of racial discrimination against the Deputy Chief for Section 5 as well as other Equal Employment Opportunity complaints.

While I take seriously any allegation of discrimination, it is especially disturbing when the allegation is against the very institution that is charged with fighting against discrimination. In the coming year, the Voting Section will face a substantial increase in its work load due to preclearence requirements associated with the Federal elections. I look forward to hearing how the Mr. Tanner plans to address the allegations of a hostile racial environment in the Section and how he will rebuild the Section 5 analyst corps.

Third, the Section’s record with respect to Section 2 litigation, claims alleging discrimination in voting, is also problematic. In the first six years of the Bush Administration, fewer Section 2 cases were brought by the Voting Section than in any other administration since 1982. The number of Section 2 cases brought on behalf of African Americans has come to a virtual standstill. While Mr. Tanner’s testimony states that there has been a slight upswing in the last year, critics – particularly in the Latino community – note that the office's apparent overemphasis on Section 203 has left minority voters outside the political process, when they could have had a fair opportunity to elect candidates of their choice through Section 2 litigation. Bilingual voting materials are not the whole story for language minority voters.

The Voting Rights Act remains the “Crown Jewel” of our civil rights laws. Nevertheless, as the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights has detailed, those responsible for maintaining this treasure have faltered in their mission. In the next 14 months, the Voting Section has a substantial amount of work to complete. I hope that this hearing will highlight those challenges and that the Justice Department witness will suggest effective solutions. We have clearly reached the point where the status quo is unacceptable.

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