An independent watchdog group on Friday approved an investigation of civil rights enforcement in the Trump administration, saying it has "grave concerns" about signals coming from federal agencies — calling out comments by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in particular.
The 6-2 vote by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights approving the statement calling for a two-year review followed a dispute between two commissioners over the language that calls out DeVos. That language cites that the Education secretary’s "repeated refusal in Congressional testimony and other public statements to commit that the department would enforce federal civil rights laws" is "particularly troubling."
The commission, an independent body authorized by Congress, serves as a watchdog on civil rights issues, but has no authority to force change in the government.
Commissioner Gail Heriot, a political independent and law professor at the University of San Diego, said the line about DeVos was "utterly over the top" and sought unsuccessfully to have it removed.
“At no time did she say that she would not enforce federal civil rights law," Heriot said of DeVos. "She has a different interpretation of what those laws require.”
But Commission Chair Catherine Lhamon, who oversaw the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights under the Obama administration, said the statement doesn’t say DeVos won’t enforce civil rights law — only that she’s refused to commit to it.
Heriot disagreed, saying, "That’s not true. She interprets the statutes differently than you.”
Lhamon said that during DeVos’ recent congressional testimony, she said only that any recipient of federal funds must follow the law.
The statement also expresses concerns about actions out of the departments of Justice, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, EPA and the Legal Services Corporation.
It also raises concerns pertaining to "the President’s proposed budget and statements of Cabinet and senior Administration officials, that the protection and fulfillment of civil rights of all persons will not be appropriately prioritized."
The review will examine whether budgets and staffing levels allow civil rights offices to do their jobs, whether management practices "are sufficient to meet the volume of civil rights issues within the offices’ jurisdiction, and the efficacy of recent resolution efforts," the statement says.
Commissioner Peter Kirsanow, a Republican attorney from Cleveland who also voted against the resolution, said he did so because the language had a “verdict-first, trial-later feel to it.”
He said he believes many of the same issues will also be addressed during other statutory work by the commission.
Lhamon said the statement was worded carefully to not assume a conclusion.
Commissioner Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a retired associate justice from North Carolina’s Supreme Court and a Democrat, said she supported the statement because “it is our role to monitor what’s going on where civil rights is concerned, and speaking out and commenting on our observations to date seems very reasonable to me.”