Perez’s tenure at the Department of Justice may prove problematic if the president nominates him to take over as secretary of Labor. His involvement in redistricting cases and his take on voting laws raised ire from some in the GOP.
In an interview with CQ Roll Call in 2011, Perez lauded the Civil Rights Division for its “heroic efforts to educate people about the do’s and don’ts of redistricting,” and voting rights advocates have praised his tenure at the Justice Department as a break from previous administrations.
“Tom’s Civil Rights Division was very, very responsive to the civil rights community,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, director and counsel at the Washington office of the Brennan Center for Justice, which has worked with the department to challenge state voting laws.
If Perez is in for a bitter confirmation battle as a potential Labor secretary, he has shown that he will not back down from such public confrontations.
Last year, his division filed racial profiling charges against Joe Arpaio, the controversial Republican sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., and a polarizing figure in the national debate over immigration.
“At its core, this is an abuse of power case involving Sheriff Arpaio and a sheriff’s office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics in a variety of unlawful ways,” Perez said. “No one in Maricopa County is above the law, and the department will fight to ensure that the promise of the Constitution is realized by everyone in Maricopa County.”
But Perez has made a priority of cracking down on police misconduct in other jurisdictions, too, noted Deborah J. Vagins, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. His division has intervened against police misconduct in New Orleans and Seattle, for example.
One influential Senate Republican, Judiciary Committee ranking member Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, has raised questions about Perez’s decision-making in a separate civil rights case and has indicated it could cause problems if he is nominated to lead the Labor Department.
In that case, the Justice Department struck a deal with the city of St. Paul, Minn., in which the city withdrew from a Supreme Court lending discrimination case in exchange for the federal government agreeing not to join a pair of housing-related False Claims Act lawsuits against the city that were instigated by a whistle-blower. Republicans contend the suits had the potential to return more than $180 million in damages to the Treasury.
“It’s hard to believe that the president would nominate somebody at the heart of a congressional investigation and so deeply involved in a controversial decision to make a shady deal with the city of St. Paul, Minnesota,” Grassley said in a statement Sunday. “Not to mention the fact that he’d be handed the keys to the whistle-blower kingdom at the Labor Department. I shudder to think how whistle-blowers will be treated in the Labor Department if this quid pro quo with St. Paul is any indication of Mr. Perez’s approach to this important area of law.”