Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, was the featured speaker at the March 28 Milbank Tweed Forum, which was titled “Voting Rights Controversies Today.” Following his address, Perez then participated in a panel discussion led by Richard Pildes, Sudler Family Professor of Constitutional Law. Other panelists were Guy-Uriel Charles, a professor at Duke Law School; Burt Neuborne, Inez Milholland Professor of Civil Liberties and legal director of NYU Law’s Brennan Center for Justice; and Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center.
Pildes noted that Perez had spent his entire career in public service, and Perez, in turn, said that he wanted to come speak at NYU Law in part “because of your enduring commitment to public service law.” He encouraged the mostly student audience to “pursue things that get you out of bed in the morning,” rather than just what is most remunerative. “Yes, my car has 177,000 miles on it,” he said, since he and his family drive a lot, instead of fly, for vacations. But he said, invoking MasterCard’s tagline, the rewards of his career have been “priceless.”
When it comes to voting, the mission of the Civil Rights division, Perez said, was making sure that elections were fair fights held on a level playing field. On of his first priorities upon taking the helm of the division was ending what he said was the ideologically based hiring employed by the Bush II administration, and restoring “career-driven,merit-based hiring.” He then spoke about efforts to enforce major provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In a question, Neuborne asked whether the Justice Department could make more vigorous use of Section 2 of the act, to target a broader array of measures that suppress voting. “I think that’s a fascinating and critically important question,” Perez replied, though he indicated he thought the more expansive application of Section 2 that Neuborne described would face an uphill battle in the courts. On the other hand, Perez acknowledged, there have been plenty of examples of novel legal approaches that, over the years, have entered the mainstream.

Posted April 9, 2012