THE BLOG
04/16/2013 05:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2013

Tom Perez and the Civil Rights Division

President Obama's nominee for Labor Secretary, Tom Perez, has demonstrated that he has the talent, energy, and proven track record to lead the Department's important mission to protect and grow the middle class. His skillful turnaround effort at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division proves he can move an institution forward while preserving its historic mission.

Four years ago, I led President-elect Obama's transition team for the Department of Justice. We soon recognized that one of the new Administration's biggest challenges in that Department would be addressing serious institutional damage at the Civil Rights Division and restoring its capacity to enforce the critical laws that protect the civil and constitutional rights of everyone in this country.

For decades, the Division had a proud and bipartisan tradition of evenhanded and energetic enforcement. Regrettably, the Civil Rights Division that we found in late 2008 had been demoralized by its political leadership and diverted from its traditional tasks. In particular, as found in an Inspector General report issued in January 2009, the Division had implemented illegal personnel practices, including making hiring decisions and case assignments based on partisanship rather than merit, and we observed that there were severe continuing consequences for morale, management, and effectiveness.

When the President chose Tom Perez to take on the task of restoring the Civil Rights Division, he tackled these problems head-on. By any proper measure, Tom's efforts to restore and transform the Division have been a tremendous success.

The Civil Rights Division has been extremely productive in the last few years. For example, the Division handled more new voting cases in 2012 than any prior year, including critical litigation to defend the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act.

He also oversaw the successful implementation of the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, landmark legislation that has transformed how the federal government prosecutes those who commit these terrible crimes.

Tom has also led the fight to end bullying and harassment against students in school - a disturbing and emerging trend that has put far too many of our children in jeopardy.

More critical in the long run even than these and many other enforcement milestones, Tom has worked tirelessly since taking the reins in October 2009 to implement institutional reforms to restore the integrity of the Division's hiring practices and vigor of the Division's enforcement efforts.

Centrally, he has restored career-driven, merit-based hiring for attorneys. A new study by the Inspector General issued a few weeks ago confirms that merit and experience -- not politics -- are once again the basis for Civil Rights Division hiring decisions. Reestablishing the non-partisan tradition that the Division, and indeed the entire Department of Justice, have long stood for, these steps in turn restore confidence in the integrity of the enforcement decisions themselves.

That same study reviewed allegations of employee mistreatment in the Division, and some critics of Tom's nomination have sought to paint him as responsible for those events. But those criticisms are entirely misplaced. All of those allegations predate his tenure as Assistant Attorney General - some by as much as 10 years. In fact, those instances represent the very legacy problems that Tom took on and has addressed so effectively. Since he arrived in 2009, Tom has put in place reforms to make sure those practices do not recur - including new hiring procedures, mandatory professionalism training, and frequent anti-discrimination reminders. Tom understands as well as anyone that you can only fix a problem of partisanship in hiring, promotion, and enforcement with non-partisanship, professionalism and objectivity.

For these reasons, Tom Perez is exactly what the Labor Department needs to continue its important work of expanding opportunity for all Americans. Although the Civil Rights Division will no doubt feel his loss, he will leave it a much more effective and professional office than when he arrived.

David Ogden is the former Deputy Attorney General of the United States and led the Obama Administration's transition team for the Department of Justice.

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