There’s no doubt Tom Perez [head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division] is hopping a lot these days. Of all the transformations that have taken place in the Obama administration, perhaps none is so radical as that within the Civil Rights Division. Under Perez, it is bigger, richer and more aggressive than ever, with a far more expansive view of its authority than at any time in recent history.
Perez is playing a leading role in the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Arizona’s new immigration law. He is promising a huge increase in prosecution of alleged hate crimes. He vows to use “disparate impact theory” to pursue discrimination cases where there is no intent to discriminate but a difference in results, such as in test scores or mortgage lending, that Perez wants to change. He is even considering a crackdown on Web sites on the theory that the Internet is a “public accommodation” as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
To do all this, Perez has come up with some novel ideas. For example, in a recent lending discrimination case, he forced the defendant–who settled the case without admitting any wrongdoing–to pay not only the alleged victims but to funnel $1 million to unrelated “qualified organizations” to conduct social programs.
Perez is pushing just as hard on smaller issues. In a little-noticed move last year, he threatened several universities because they took part in an experimental program to allow students to use the Amazon Kindle for textbooks. At the time, the Kindle was not fully accessible to blind students, and under pressure from Perez the schools agreed not to offer the e-reader to any students until it was fully accessible to all.
Heading the Civil Rights Division is the opportunity of a lifetime for Perez. A former aide to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, he was an activist and later a councilman in Montgomery County, Md., where he made a name for himself pushing in-state tuition and drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants. Now, he’s on a much bigger stage.