Deval Patrick received his
Bachelor's from Harvard College in 1978, and his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1982. In
1994, after working for a law firm in Boston, he joined the Justice Department during the first term
of Clinton's administration as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. There, he was
responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting unlawful discrimination. Mr. Patrick now serves
as Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary for the Coca
When did you become involved in the Civil
I have always been interested in the issues. During
the '50s and '60s there was a lot of activity around civil rights. When I became a lawyer my first
job was with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and I did civil rights work on the death penalty and
voting rights. Actually, that is how I met Clinton. I sued him in a voting rights case! And then
when I was in private practice doing business cases, my pro bono work was in the area of
civil-rights work, so I have been involved with these issues for a long
You sued Clinton and then ended up working for him? Did
Well, we settled. I spent a lot of time with him working on
When you were the Assistant Attorney General for Civil
Rights, what major issues did your office handle?
We got very involved in
affirmative action, although not because we wanted to. There is no affirmative action program in the
Civil Rights Division. We got involved because the Right turned it into a political issue and we were
the source of that thinking and the practical examples of how to respond. We spent a lot of time on
that with pretty good outcomes. We also spent time on violence around abortion clinics dealing with
issues around balancing appropriate freedom of expression with protecting a woman's right to
We were very involved in church arsons - black churches in the South -
and organized the largest federal investigation in history, partnered with the Justice
Department, the FBI and the ATF. There was a rash of arsons, and we made some good advances. Arson is
a very hard crime to investigate and prosecute because you are literally searching through ashes for
clues. And not all of the arsons were racially motivated. There was not one conspiracy that
connected these fires across the South, but there were smaller conspiracies of two or three churches
that we were able to investigate and prosecute.
or failures in enforcing civil rights did you experience during your time
Well, that is a question I have been thinking about ever
since. Considering I was only there for one term, I think we made a lot of progress! We broke every
record in terms of the number of enforcement actions begun, and the number of successful outcomes.
We had some real success around police conduct -issues of systematic abuse in some large urban
police departments, for example. We successfully defended the principle of affirmative action while
acknowledging that there is a right and a wrong way to do it.
I think the church
arson work was important and very successful. It was unusual in a lot of ways that couldn't be
appreciated outside the government because these are agencies that don't usually cooperate.
And the Americans with Disabilities Act - we really gave life to that statute.
It was an area where we had the biggest impact that first term.
During the second
term home ownership among African-American families with children and single parents was at an
all-time high. The lending industry itself credited our enforcement actions for these outcomes. So
these were all good things!
But there was so much more to do that we didn't get
done. I think some of the issues around admissions, and schools, and school standards, in
particular, school quality, we don't think we made as much progress as we wanted to
What is your view of the Justice Department under John
I'm smiling because I have assiduously avoided answering this
kind of question! It is very hard for people to appreciate how demanding these jobs are, and it is
not helpful to be in the eye of a particular storm with your predecessor complaining about how you
are doing your work. I knew Ralph Boyd, who was the first Assistant Attorney General under the Bush
Administration. He's gone now, but I have to believe that he did the best he could with the
philosophies he was working with. I think that Bush's philosophies are different from Clinton around
the issues of civil rights.
I think that 9/11 changed a lot of what the Civil
Rights Division was willing to stand up for, which has been a worry for me. I'll give you
one example: John Ashcroft surprised a lot of people by saying that he was really going to focus on
the problem of racial profiling when he became Attorney General. It inspired a lot of people because
he has a reputation as a conservative activist. Then 9/11 came along. The Patriot Act came along.
Homeland Security came along and now racial profiling is at the center in many respects of what the
Administration is doing. That is not what they call it, but that is in the nature of what it is
doing, and it is driven and supported because of the fear. And that fear is
What do you think about the USA Patriot Acts? Do they
threaten the civil rights of citizens?
I should be better informed, but
what I know about the Patriot Act worries me. I understand it. I understand where it comes from and
why so much latitude was given to law enforcement after 9/11. It was a horrific experience for this
country and a fearful one. That was what it was intended to be. It was a terrorist act, and it did in
fact terrorize us.
I think in every other experience in American history where
we have let our fear distract us from what our founding principles were, freedom has suffered. And I
think that freedom suffers much under the Patriot Acts. Now, I know that the Administration takes
the position that it is one thing to have the power and another thing to abuse the power. Just
giving these powers to the Administration, any administration and the Executive Branch, is not an
inherent threat. But I think it is incumbent on the legislature that there is a reason why we have
checks and balances. To give that kind of latitude to the Executive Branch with the opportunity to
use that latitude on American citizens or others lawfully in this country, I think that is a real
So, are you worried about other actions they have
taken? For instance, the detainment of "enemy combatants" at
You may remember when the Administration first said
they were going to have secret tribunals to try those suspected of terrorist behavior, and that there
were going to be military tribunals. Even the military said, "This is not how we enforce
the rule of law in the military. " As I say, I understand the fear that inspires it, but I
have a real problem with that. This is an imperfect legal system.
Well, it is imperfect for all the reasons people say it is
imperfect. Juries are unpredictable. Judges vary in quality and preparation. I still think it is the
best legal system on Earth, imperfect or not! And one of its best aspects is the notion of a public
trial, that you have an opportunity to confront and cross-examine your accuser. That you have a
Constitutional right to effective counsel, and that there is a neutral party making a decision,
whether a judge or a jury. These are processes that have served us in very difficult trials, like
for the Oklahoma City bombing. I think they can serve us here too and add some legitimacy in the
eyes of the world to the actions we are taking against the
If you were the head of the Civil Rights Division,
what would you like to do?
That is another of those impossible
questions! I hope that even in the wake of 9/11 with the Patriot Act and some of the other actions
you have mentioned, the decision to designate individuals as "enemy combatants"
and ignoring the Geneva Convention, I would like to think that even now, we in the Civil Rights
Division would have something to say about the excesses the Administration was pressing. I'd like to
think that the Division was a reminder to the Administration about what the Constitution is, and
American ideals are for, and that they have some reason to anchor decisions that are made, even in
What hopes do you have for the next generation dealing
with civil rights?
Well, one is just to get active! I think there is a
movement in my generation that civil rights issues are done, that everything is fixed. And frankly,
I get pointed to as an example of how everything is fixed. You can come up from the south side of
Chicago and go to Milton Academy, and live in Milton, and so"Isn't that great? Why are we
still whining about this stuff?" Now, I don't just say this because I have been involved
for a while.
I really believe this is a unique experiment in human history - the
American experiment. It is a unique way to organize a society. It is the most successful
multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious democracy in human history. It is the longest running.
And the most distinguishing feature, the only thing that makes us different from every other
experiment in history, is civil rights and civil liberties. That is it!
religious liberty to a greater or lesser degree in other societies. There is diversity to a greater
or lesser degree in other societies. There is the rule of law to a greater or lesser degree, but
the thing that makes this country - and has historically made it - a beacon of light, is the idea of
"liberty. " It is the idea of freedom, and that is all about protecting civil
rights. So rather than think of it as some kind of special-interest politics, only of concern to
minorities, gays and lesbians, women and people with disabilities and so on - I hope that your
generation and generations after will begin to see civil rights for what it is. It is a fundamental
identifying character and strength of what it means to be an American! n
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.