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Religious Freedom

New Report Details Attacks on Civil Liberties and on Civil Rights Protections

Press Release
Tarek Rizk or Nathan Richter
PFAW Foundation
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John Ashcroft’s Assault on the Constitution

Under the direction of Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Department of Justice has undermined the constitutional rights of all Americans as it has prosecuted a war on terrorism since the September 11, 2001 attacks, according to a new report released today by People For the American Way Foundation. At the same time, Ashcroft has continued to press his ideology into practice at the Justice Department, reversing the department’s position in civil rights cases, launching a campaign to threaten the independence of federal judges and second-guessing prosecutors on death penalty cases.

Download a PDF of the report now.

“America must have the all the tools it needs to fight terrorism while protecting the promise of freedom for our citizens and visitors. To that end, it is absolutely crucial that America’s campaign to protect our security be overseen by an attorney general who can both stand up to terrorism and stand up for the Constitution,” said PFAW Foundation President Ralph G. Neas. “Instead, two and a half years after his confirmation and two years after September 11, Ashcroft has continued a dangerous assault on our freedoms and demonstrated an unwillingness to protect civil rights.”

The report outlines the Ashcroft Justice Department’s dangerous tactics in the war on terrorism, its disturbing civil rights record, its participation in the administration’s judicial nomination strategies, and its attacks on the First Amendment, the role of career prosecutors and judicial independence. “The record is clear. Ashcroft and the Justice Department have gone too far. I’m heartened by the recent actions of members of Congress and the American people opposing Ashcroft’s assault on our freedoms,” Neas said. “Together, we’re sending a clear message to the attorney general that the Bill of Rights is not optional in wartime.”

The report details the Justice Department’s conduct in the war on terrorism, from attacks on the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment to the Justice Department’s own inspector general’s account of civil rights abuses of prisoners rounded up after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Also covered are congressional efforts to check the DOJ’s power as well as resolutions passed by more than 150 American cities, towns and states speaking out against attacks on civil liberties.

“Armed with the over-broad USA PATRIOT Act, unilateral assertions of executive authority and stifling secrecy, Ashcroft and the Justice Department have taken aim at many fundamental freedoms since 9/11,” Neas said. “Incredibly, Ashcroft has repeatedly sought more power while ignoring the concerns of Congress and the American people.”

The report also includes a damning account of the Ashcroft Justice Department’s record on civil rights. Throughout his contentious confirmation, civil rights groups expressed concern that the attorney general lacked sensitivity to civil rights principles and similarly lacked a commitment to enforce them. The past 18 months have confirmed those suspicions. “Ashcroft has simply failed to carry out his prescribed duties as chief enforcer of the nation’s civil rights laws,” the report concludes.

The Ashcroft Justice Department has stopped action or reversed course time and again to weaken enforcement and protection of civil rights. For example, despite previous support for the University of Michigan’s affirmative action plan, the Justice Department filed an amicus brief opposing affirmative action in this year’s Supreme Court case. Reports indicate that ultra-conservatives in the Justice Department urged the administration to take an even more aggressive stance opposing affirmative action.

Prosecutions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination in the public sector based on race, gender, religion or national origin, are down drastically compared to previous years. “During the last five presidential terms, the Justice Department filed between 12 and 14 Title VII prosecutions each year. At Ashcroft’s Justice Department, these cases, which are a cornerstone of civil rights litigation, have fallen to a rate of three prosecutions per year,” Neas said. “Ashcroft’s Justice Department just isn’t doing its job to protect civil rights.”

The report discusses the DOJ’s role in the Bush administration’s campaign to pack the federal judiciary with right-wing judges whose views are far from the mainstream of legal thought. It also discusses Ashcroft’s attacks on the First Amendment in the ongoing battle over medical marijuana, his support for religious organizations that seek to proselytize in public elementary schools, and his actions to undermine career prosecutors on the death penalty and on sentencing, which also threatens judicial independence.

“Taken together, the details of this report, as well as our previous reports on Ashcroft and the Justice Department, paint an extremely distressing picture of a zealot who sees himself, at times, above the law and above the Constitution he swore to uphold,” Neas said. “In Ashcroft’s America, immigrants are guilty until proven innocent, civil rights enforcement is optional, and the Bill of Rights can be overridden by the stroke of a pen. And that is simply unacceptable.”

The report covers the activity of Ashcroft and the Justice Department since Ashcroft’s one-year anniversary in office, February 2002. Previous PFAW Foundation reports cover the first year of Ashcroft’s term as attorney general.