Lori Swanson on: Civil Rights
I write about the attacks on civil rights.
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice was created 60 years ago. Since 1957, it has been the tip of the spear in taking action against discriminatory practices, from schools to hate crimes, from housing to lending, from employment to elections. It has attacked human trafficking and ensured access to clinics and voting booths. It has stood up for people with disabilities.
In short, its mission has been to give equal protection under the law and be a shield against exploitation, discrimination, and violence. While the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights sets civil rights policy, it is the U.S. Department of Justice that is the watchdog on patrol.
We are now in the midst of an unprecedented culture war, where different groups of Americans are singled out for attack. Over the past six months, we have seen Muslims singled out for a travel ban, millions of voters accused of fraud, transgender soldiers told they are not worthy of service, roll backs in policies to stop campus sexual assaults, and police encouraged to mistreat suspects. The list goes on and on.
Last week it was announced that the U.S. Department of Justice will focus its energy on attacking college affirmative action policies as being discriminatory against white people . This policy turns the DOJ’s mission upside down.
The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office does not have jurisdiction to prosecute civil rights litigation. This jurisdiction is delegated to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which does a fine job of mediating complaints and setting policy on civil rights matters. But changes at the federal level demand that the states take more initiative.
Even though my office does not have jurisdiction to initiate civil rights litigation, we have tried to exert our influence where consistent with state policy; for example, some of our actions include:
- Filed a friend-of-the-court brief with U.S. Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage rights.  (The court singled out language in our brief about the need to overturn Baker v. Nelson.)
- Filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of setting legislative districts based on “one person-one vote” (as opposed to just counting “eligible voters.”) 
- Filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of disabled children being able to bring service dogs to school. 
- Filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court to oppose corporate contributions drowning out the voices of regular people in political campaigns. 
- Filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that contraception by included in health policies. 
- Filed an amicus brief with the federal Court of Appeals to prohibit inmates from being charged up to $14 per minute for prison phone calls. 
I have also joined several other attorneys general in letters and briefs that:
- Ask Congress not to slash funding for legal aid.
- Ask the President not to rescind protections to DACA children(including over 800,000 people who were brought to the United States as children and have no connection to their home country.)
- Ask U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos not to roll back policies to curb campus sexual assaults.
- Ask Congress to block the President’s banishment of transgender soldiers.
There was one case where I did have jurisdiction to file a lawsuit involving individual rights, and that was the travel ban. I was one of only two attorneys general to file the initial successful lawsuit. I had jurisdiction on the basis that the state government owned universities that had students with visas and employed people who held visas. 
I believe that the state legislature should establish and fund a state Office of Civil Rights. This authority may have been redundant over the 70 years of US DOJ involvement in this arena. Given the recent attacks on groups of people based on who they are, and given the apparent changes in the mission of the US DOJ, I would like to see such an office created and funded.
If you think this idea has merit, please bring the issue up with your legislators. No matter what office I hold, I will support the establishment of this office.