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Obama's zealous civil rights enforcer gets busy

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"I love this job," said Thomas Perez, the hard-charging head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, in a speech last December to the liberal legal group American Constitution Society. "We have a very broad, a very ambitious vision. It's a very exciting vision, and I wake up every morning with a hop in my step."

There's no doubt Tom Perez 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.

Perez is pursuing his goals with a lot of muscle, powered by a major appropriations increase in President Obama's 2010 budget. "I am going to be calling each and every one of you to recruit you, because we've got 102 new positions in our budget," Perez told the liberal lawyers last year. "One hundred and two people, when added to a base of 715 people. ... that's a real opportunity to make a difference."

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.

But his across-the-board activism troubles some who have a more restrained view of the role of federal prosecutors. Perez and his team "view civil rights enforcement from a perspective that they are doing 'justice' in a broad sense unrelated to the laws on the books," says Bob Driscoll, who served in a top position in the Bush Civil Rights Division. "They are advancing the cause of historical victims of discrimination, as well as new classes of people who are disfavored by some in society."

As if to prove Driscoll's point, Perez sometimes speaks emotionally about the vast scope of his responsibility. The job of the Civil Rights Division, he says, is to bring light to Americans "living in the shadows." There are "our Muslim-American brothers and sisters subject to post-9/11 backlash" and "communities of color disproportionately affected by the subprime meltdown," and "LGBT brothers and sisters ... forced to confront discrimination" and "all too many children lacking quality education." And many, many more.

That's a very big portfolio, especially when not all the problems in the world can be solved by a federal lawsuit. To Driscoll, the new Civil Rights Division is acting "more like a government-funded version of an advocacy group such as the ACLU or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund than like government lawyers who apply the facts to the law." At some point in the future, Perez's critics believe, Congress and the courts will rein in the division for overreaching and bringing unwarranted cases, as happened during the Clinton years.

But that will come later, especially if Republicans win the House or Senate and can subject Perez and the Justice Department to serious oversight. For now, Thomas Perez is just getting started.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner