A federal judge last week blocked a Justice Department commission studying issues plaguing the law enforcement community from releasing its report because the panel excluded civil-rights leaders.
U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled that the much-ballyhooed Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires government committees to receive input from “fairly balanced” viewpoints.
Judge Bates, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote in his 45-page opinion that the commission was full of law enforcement officials, but none of the members have “a criminal defense, civil rights, or community organization background.”
The judge also scolded the Justice Department for holding closed-door meetings and failing to notify the public when meetings would take place. So far, the commission has held more than 20 meetings, according to Judge Bates’ opinion.
“Especially in 2020, when racial justice and civil rights issues involving law enforcement have erupted across the nation, one may legitimately question whether it is sound policy to have a group with little diversity of experience, examine, behind closed doors, the sensitive issues facing law enforcement and the criminal justice system in America today,” he wrote.
The commission was expected to release its report later this month, ahead of the 2020 presidential election. President Trump has made law enforcement and public safety one of the central themes of his reelection campaign.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) filed the lawsuit earlier this year seeking more diversity on the commission. Attorney General William P. Barr and the Justice Department were both named as defendants.
Justice Department lawyers had argued that the commission was not subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Department, but did not challenge claims it would run afoul of the law, if applicable.
Judge Bates ruled that the LDF had suffered an injury because its voice was denied access to the commission. He ordered both parties to submit additional briefs on how to ensure the commission has a “fairly balanced” membership.
“Because Attorney General Barr appointed the Commissioners at the same time as establishing the Commission, and only selected from those with law enforcement backgrounds, it does not appear that LDF and its representatives had an opportunity to formally apply for Commission membership,” Judge Bates wrote.
Mr. Barr unveiled the commission in January, following an executive order in October 2019. It is tasked with studying mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse and other issues that impact law enforcement efforts to reduce crime.
At the time, the Justice Department said the panel would explore “modern issues affecting law enforcement that most impact the ability of the American people to reduce crime.”
All of the commission’s 18 members work in law enforcement, and no defense attorneys, civil rights organizations or academics were included. The commission has 15 working groups, but they are largely made up of police officials or prosecutors.
Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s president and director-counsel, hailed the decision as “an important step in the right direction.”
“The country has been demanding accountability for police misconduct and violence, and clamoring for a reimagined notion of public safety for many months following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people,” she said in a statement. “Any federal committee designed to make recommendations about law enforcement must include representation from people and communities impacted by police violence, civil rights organizations, the criminal defense bar, and other stakeholders.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.