CHARLIE MITCHELL: Officially, the Justice Department’s role is neutral

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – What to do, what to do, what to do? A United States Department of Justice employee suggested on Facebook that the Magnolia State change its nickname to the “Disgusting and Shameful State.”
She was commenting on behavior of a few in the stands at a University of Southern Mississippi basketball game who shouted, “Where’s your green card?” at a Hispanic player for the opposing team.
Still, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, whose duties including submitting matters for DOJ of approval, was rightly rattled. He demanded – in as stern a tone as he’s ever used – that the bureaucrat (identified as Voting Rights Section supervisory civil rights analyst Stephanie Celandine Gyamfi) be held accountable.
Hosemann called the remarks, “unprofessional, unwarranted, irresponsible and misguided.”
In due course, Voting Section Chief T. Christian Herren Jr. responded, issuing a statement last week saying the DOJ had “taken steps to ensure that this employee will not be assigned to matters involving the state of Mississippi for the time being.”
For some, of course, the social media declaration of a general disdain for Mississippi was a “gotcha” moment. It was confirmation that while DOJ lawyers and staff put up a neutral, serious front in meetings and in official reviews, pretending to abide by the letter of the law, it’s all hypocrisy to mask their hostility.
For others, it was a revelation. They had no idea of the muscle of DOJ functionaries or why their opinions matter at all.
It’s a long story.
It goes all the way back to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. The Supreme Court has opinions, but it doesn’t have an army to enforce them. States, North and South, ignored the ruling that racial segregation in public education was unconstitutional.
Congress didn’t allocate money to local schools back then, so there was no threat of withholding money for noncompliance. Ten years went by, then almost 20 before federal judges in the South started issuing direct orders to individual schools to force racial mixing.
The phenomenon of delay, delay, delay did not pass without notice. Those who wrote the voting rights legislation that Congress passed in 1965 took note of the foot-dragging. So a provision in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act assigned continuing DOJ oversight of everything having to do with elections in states with histories of racial discrimination, including Mississippi.
None of them could do anything election-related without federal approval.
And it has been that way since.
If a building used for voting in Issaquena County (population 1,394) burns and the election commission wants to substitute a building across the street, formal application must be made to the DOJ. The federal staff then has six months to decide if the new location was chosen for a racially discriminatory purpose or will have a racially discriminatory impact.
Hundreds of federal careerists do nothing but evaluate such requests. That will include, assuming a submission is filed, wording of the photo ID requirement that Mississippi voters agreed in November to the process of casting a ballot.
Georgia’s voter ID law was approved by the DOJ – when George Bush was president. Voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina have been rejected by the DOJ – since President Obama took office. Differences in the proposals are minuscule. Differences in the politics of the two administrations are major.
That’s the story here. That’s the shame.
I have written before that people are sorely mistaken if they think approval of a voter ID law will, in and of itself, assure anything about the fairness of elections or the avoidance of fraud. It won’t. People who want to cheat will find a way, same as politicians who are corrupt, take kickbacks or sell their votes.
Back in 1965, Congress didn’t ask the DOJ to apply staff ideologies. Their job was to keep states from ignoring the law, to check for the aforesaid discriminatory intent or result and, if they found none, to give the green light. That’s a simple, objective process, now completely overcome by politics.
This fracas was not, or shouldn’t have been, about whether a DOJ employee has an overarching hatred of Mississippi. We don’t need to fret about that. It’s her right.
It should have been about whether anyone in the DOJ understands the law hasn’t changed. Their job is not to apply their prejudices. It’s to apply the test defined in the law – then get back to whatever they want to do on Facebook.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.