When the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to confirm Loretta Lynch as the next Attorney General of the United States, it meant Eric Holder’s days as AG were numbered.
Separately, the Department of Justice decided against prosecuting George Zimmerman for civil rights violations in the killing of Trayvon Martin. When Holder announced the decision, he said the reason was insufficient evidence. The following day, Trayvon Martin’s father told Buzzfeed: ”We knew that to get sufficient enough of evidence, Trayvon would have to be here to tell his story.”
During the same interview, Tracy Martin announced the family would not file a civil suit against Zimmerman. He went on to say:
The state tried and failed. The Justice Department didn’t feel there was enough evidence, there’s nothing left to do but continue to fight for kids like Trayvon.
During an interview with Politico on Friday, Holder said he plans to push for a new standard of proof in civil rights offenses. He envisions changes that would make the federal government “a better backstop” in cases like Ferguson and Trayvon Martin.
I think that if we adjust those standards, we can make the federal government a better backstop — make us more a part of the process in an appropriate way to reassure the American people that decisions are made by people who are really disinterested. I think that if we make those adjustments, we will have that capacity.
Between now and when Loretta Lynch is confirmed, expected to be sometime in March, Holder will call for a lower standard of proof in civil rights violations cases.
I think some serious consideration needs to be given to the standard of proof that has to be met before federal involvement is appropriate, and that’s something that I am going to be talking about before I leave office
The fact is the standard of proof for civil rights violations establishes a burden that is virtually impossible to meet. As Tracy Martin put it, the existing standard requires that the victim be there to tell their story. In that respect, the idea that the law protects us from civil rights violations is an illusion.
Lawyers at the DOJ are looking at possible ways to reform civil rights law in ways that balance the rights of victims with the rights of the accused. Depending on their assessment, Holder might simply argue for the need for a lower standard of proof rather than propose a specific legislative remedy. He could propose toughening the hate crimes laws that were considered in the Martin case and establishing a broader standard for a “deprivation of rights under color of law” as could have applied in Michael Brown’s case.
The cases of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and numerous other people prove that we have been living under the illusion that when a civil rights violation occurs and the evidence is strong, the person(s) responsible will be prosecuted. All one needs to do is look at the cases of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner and countless others to see that isn’t true. Yet, it’s also false to say that the DOJ lacks the political will to pursue these cases.
The odds of a legislative change that would strengthen civil rights law is highly unlikely in a Republican controlled congress. On Friday, John Boehner proved even with help from Nancy Pelosi and Democrats all he can get passed his kindergarten caucus is a week’s worth of funding for the Department of Homeland Security. And that’s something Republicans consider a “priority.” The reality is Republicans don’t care about civil rights violations because they don’t care about the realities of the most likely victims of civil rights violations.
That leaves Holder with appealing to consciences where they exist.
At the same time, Holder’s exit is far from an assurance that that the effort to reform civil rights laws will exit with him.
Loretta Lynch will already make history as the first women to be appointed Attorney-General. Like Eric Holder, Lynch is aware of the legal realities surrounding civil rights and, by the way, voting rights.
Based on her record and her responses to questions during her confirmation hearing, Lynch may use different tactics, but is likely to continue the fight for civil rights laws with teeth.