NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, unveiling her agenda to promote civil rights, told an NAACP banquet Saturday that the “scales of justice are seriously out of balance” for black Americans. “We have had an attorney general who doesn’t respect the rule of law or enforce the civil rights laws on the books,” she told about 900 people at the annual Freedom Fund Banquet of the Charleston National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
She applauded the Friday decision by an appeals court in Louisiana tossing out the aggravated battery conviction that could have sent a black teenager to prison for 15 years in last year’s beating of a white classmate in the racially tense town of Jena. The teenager, 16 at the time of the December beating of a white youth, should not have been tried as an adult, the appeals court ruled. He is one of six black students charged in the attack and one of five originally charged as adults with attempted second-degree murder.
The charges have brought criticism that blacks are treated more harshly than whites after racial confrontations. “There is no excuse for the way the legal system treated those young people,” she said. Earlier Saturday, the New York senator issued a release in which she said she will focus on the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, including adding to its budget, as part of an effort to “undo the damage done under President Bush.” Clinton said during her speech that too many people are invisible to the nation’s leaders.
“You’re invisible to the president even when you are on CNN,” she said, referring to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina two years ago. Clinton, rival Barack Obama and other presidential candidates are heavily courting the black vote as they trek through this early voting state. Nearly half the voters in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary here were black. Clinton said her administration would seek to rebuild the Justice Department’s traditional role in defending civil rights and to review charges of improper, politically motivated hiring to determine whether any laws were broken. “We have to believe justice is blind in America,” she told the audience.
The earlier campaign statement accused the Bush administration of driving the Civil Rights Division “toward an agenda driven by partisanship, cronyism and ideology” and cited media reports that state political appointees have dominated the hiring process under Bush. Last month, Assistant Attorney General Wan J. Kim, the Justice Department’s top civil rights enforcer, resigned after more than a year of criticism that his office filled its ranks with conservative loyalists instead of experienced attorneys. The Justice Department said his office had set record levels of civil rights enforcement.
Clinton’s other proposals include combatting voter ID laws, letting ex-felons who have completed their sentences regain their right to vote and making Election Day a federal holiday to make voting easier. She said she would press for Washington, D.C., to get a seat in the House of Representatives. Clinton also is proposing an expansion of federal hate crimes legislation to include crimes committed against people based on their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.