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For many critics of the Bush administration, the leadership shake-up in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is small cause for celebration. Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd Jr., who received mixed reviews over his two-year tenure, said his farewells Friday. Boyd’s likely successor, 34-year-old R. Alexander Acosta, would be the first Hispanic to run the division. Acosta held the unit’s No. 2 slot for nearly two years during the current administration and sits on the National Labor Relations Board. The changing of the guard seems unlikely to dramatically alter a civil rights agenda driven largely by the conservative priorities of President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Many civil rights advocates and minority groups complain that, under Boyd’s watch, the federal government weakened enforcement of civil rights laws, stopped pursuing high-stakes employment discrimination cases, and failed to investigate violations of the Voting Rights Act in connection with the 2000 presidential election. And as principal deputy of the division from January 2001 until December 2002, Acosta is closely linked to many of the division’s controversial positions. “Boyd’s tenure in the Civil Rights Division has been a major disappointment and has been harmful in a lot of ways,” says Elliot Mincberg, general counsel of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way. “The $64,000 question is whether Acosta will try to effect some change.” Acosta — a Harvard Law School graduate and the son of Cuban immigrants — has already been endorsed by the National Council of La Raza and the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, largely because of his support in implementing an executive order issued by then-President Bill Clinton that makes federally funded public services more accessible to individuals with limited proficiency in English. Several other civil rights groups say they will not take a formal position until after Acosta’s Wednesday confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Acosta is already facing pressure from both ends of the ideological spectrum. On July 8, an op-ed piece on the Web site of the conservative National Review blasted Acosta for his work on language-access issues. The column’s author, Jim Boulet Jr., an opponent of the Clinton order, called Acosta “the wrong choice on both political and policy grounds.” The same day, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of civil rights groups, hit Acosta with a 10-page letter noting a laundry list of concerns about the Justice Department’s civil rights record. “We’re concerned with the Civil Rights Division’s abandonment of participation in some employment discrimination cases and also with the division’s lack of commitment to continuing to bring disparate-impact cases,” says Leslie Annextein, a senior lawyer with D.C.’s National Women’s Law Center, which belongs to the coalition. Facing criticism from all corners is part of the job, says Boyd, who plans to join the D.C. office of Atlanta’s Alston & Bird. “No one can do this job, try to do it right, and avoid being criticized roundly, loudly, and constantly,” Boyd says. “The person sitting in this chair has to be almost exclusively concerned with getting the right answer and then explaining that answer so that folks understand we’re doing things in an aggressive but principled and thoughtful way.” He adds, “We think Alex will be a really excellent leader of the division. He’s smart, principled. He’s a consensus-builder. At the same time, he can be decisive when he needs to be.” Lawyers who have worked with Acosta say that he is a “team player” and a “facilitator.” “Alex is a lot more of an inside-the-Beltway guy than Ralph Boyd,” says Vincent Eng, legal director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium. “He definitely knows how to work the system in order to accomplish things.” Indeed, Acosta seems the quintessential young Republican Washington lawyer — well-connected in conservative circles and a regular on the Federalist Society circuit. After graduating from Harvard Law School, where he served as president of the campus chapter of the Federalist Society, Acosta clerked for Judge Samuel Alito Jr. of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, considered a possible Bush pick for the U.S. Supreme Court. Acosta went on to join the D.C. office of Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis as an associate in the firm’s prominent appellate group. Among Acosta’s conservative colleagues at Kirkland were Kenneth Starr, who later served as Whitewater prosecutor; Paul Clement, now deputy solicitor general; and Jay Lefkowitz, now a senior White House policy adviser. In 1997, Acosta left private practice and worked as a legal fellow for the Center for Ethics and Public Policy, a conservative think tank, where he wrote and spoke against judicial activism. Acosta’s advisers on the project included notable conservatives William Bennett, the secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan; William Kristol, editor and publisher of The Weekly Standard; Edwin Meese, attorney general under Reagan; and Dick Thornburgh, attorney general during the first Bush administration. But Acosta’s immigrant background may have influenced his politics as well. An only child growing up in South Florida, Acosta was looked after by his grandmother while both parents worked. He did not learn English until he entered kindergarten. His father sells cellular telephones for a living. His mother works as a legal assistant. Even while directing the Project on the Judiciary, Acosta served on the board of Comit� Hispano de Virginia, a Northern Virginia organization providing immigration assistance and English classes. Acosta’s work on language-access initiatives while serving in the Civil Rights Division has won him unlikely allies. Last month, the liberal-leaning Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund honored Acosta for his role in implementing Executive Order No. 13,166, signed by Clinton in August 2000 to improve access to federally funded programs for individuals with limited English skills. According to supporters, Acosta also applied pressure to the Commerce Department for the release of census data in time to have an impact on language assistance in the 2002 elections. His participation in language-access issues has alienated him from some conservatives who argue that discrimination based on the ability to speak English is not prohibited by the Constitution or civil rights laws. “Our common language is the most important part of the national glue that holds us together,” says affirmative action foe Roger Clegg, general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity. “It is important for our government to encourage people to become fluent in English and to be careful about removing incentives for learning English.” Clegg, who calls Acosta “an open-minded and careful lawyer,” says he still supports Acosta’s nomination. “He’s very highly qualified. He’s worked in the Civil Rights Division in a high position. He has taught civil rights law,” Clegg says. “He’s a good choice to head the division, and he ought to be confirmed.” (Clegg is a regular contributor to the “Points of View” section of law.com affiliate Legal Times.) Boyd, a Boston attorney who was relatively unknown in Washington when he was named to head the Civil Rights Division, has been attacked by civil rights groups and Democrats in Congress for not vigorously pursuing employment discrimination cases and for changing positions in ongoing litigation. The division has been torn by internal politics as well. Over the past two years, several high-level career attorneys have been reassigned or removed from significant cases, leading to defections and low morale. Boyd says he stands behind the division’s record. He points to the Justice Department’s efforts to combat backlash discrimination against Muslims and Arabs in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and notes that the division is currently building seven or eight major cases that allege a “pattern or practice” of discrimination. “I think we’ve been really aggressive, but I think we’ve been principled as well,” Boyd says. “We’ve now got several pattern-and-practice employment cases in the pipeline,” he adds. “I would expect several of them to be brought in the not-too-distant future, but we’re not going to bring them one day sooner than we’re ready to bring them.”

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