Holder’s Comments on Race Prompt Requests for Legal Help

Carrie Johnson, Washington Post, May 13, 2009

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s emphatic public comments on racial equality since he took office have prompted several plaintiffs to ask the Justice Department to intercede in employment discrimination cases and civil rights disputes, according to interviews and court filings.

Among the most well known of the petitioners is Donald Rochon, who 20 years ago became the first black FBI agent to tangle publicly with the agency over racism within its ranks. Rochon ultimately won a landmark $1 million financial settlement after he blew the whistle to lawmakers about his alleged mistreatment. That opened the door for lawsuits by other black employees, which transformed the way the bureau handles discrimination complaints.

Now Rochon is again clashing with the FBI, this time in a complicated disagreement over his retirement benefits. Rochon and his lawyers have written Holder seeking help, citing the attorney general’s February speech in honor of Black History Month in which he called for “a more open discussion” of race.

“We’re hopeful that with a new administration, a new attorney general who in our view made a very courageous speech about race relations, that things will change for both Don and more broadly,” said Michael Rubin, a lawyer at Arnold & Porter who is handling Rochon’s case pro bono. “But we don’t think that things will change on their own.”

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Other people suing government agencies and contractors over alleged civil rights violations have also lodged similar requests, underscoring the lofty expectations for the nation’s first black attorney general.

For example, lawyers for a defense contracting company asked the Justice Department to intervene and support them with court briefs in an appeals court case. They want to overturn a lower-court ruling that they say could make it harder for plaintiffs to proceed with race-discrimination allegations.

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Career lawyers at the department decided not to weigh in on the contracting case, which has yet to be argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. The company, Worldwide Network Services, did win support from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the National Urban League. But its advocates say they are disappointed that the Obama administration did not lend its voice to the effort.

Patricia A. Millett, a lawyer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld who represents the contracting company, said the decision by the department’s civil rights division raises the question, “Do the actions match the words?”

“This is what I thought the civil rights division was supposed to do,” she said. “It is important that these matters, which mean so much to individuals, not get lost amid all the other pressing issues before the administration.”

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