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Head of Jewish Group Tapped for Top Civil Rights Post Under DeVos

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 26, 2017 3 min read
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The Trump administration has picked the leader of a group that advocates for the civil rights of the Jewish community to hold the top civil rights post under U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Kenneth L. Marcus, the founder and president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, was announced Thursday as President Donald Trump’s nominee to be assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. Previously, he served as the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Marcus also was delegated the authority of the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department under President George W. Bush.

Last year, our coworker Mark Walsh spoke to Marcus about the role of the office for civil rights in the incoming Trump administration. He counseled keeping an “open mind” as far as Trump enforcing education civil rights laws, noting that GOP administrations in the past enforced those laws appropriately.

“In my experience, the overwhelming majority of cases [the office for civil rights] handles will be addressed largely the same, regardless of whether it is a liberal or a conservative administration,” Marcus said at the time. “The differences will come in the relatively high-profile cases. But then, those are the cases that matter.”

On its web site, the Brandeis Center states that its mission is “to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people and promote justice for all.” In addition, the group says, “In the Twenty-first Century, the leading civil and human rights challenge facing North American Jewry is the resurgent problem of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on university campuses. This social problem requires an immediate, effective, and coordinated legal response.”

Marcus has criticized political movements that push governments to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, and in particular those on college campuses. He has said that anti-Israel sentiments in higher education have intimidated those with pro-Israel views. He has also authored The Definition of Anti-Semitism.

DeVos’ approach to civil rights is one of the most closely watched aspects of her leadership of the department. DeVos and her supporters say that the federal government is taking a fairer approach to civil rights issues that gives states and local school districts more power than under the Obama administration. Critics, however, charge that her approach to issues such as systemic racial discrimination and transgender rights threatens to do great harm to disadvantaged groups of students.

The acting assistant secretary for civl rights, Candice Jackson, has drawn flak for her comments about sexual assault on college campuses and racial issues. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee and one of Jackson’s biggest critics, praised DeVos Thursday for not trying to get Jackson confirmed for the assistant secretary’s job by the Senate.

The top civil rights job at the department deals with a host of sweeping and politically difficult issues. Check out an extensive interview our colleague Evie Blad conducted with Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the department from 2013 to 2017.

Back in 2004, we wrote about Marcus due to controversy about the fact that he was “delegated the authority” of the assistant secretary for civil rights without being confirmed by the Senate. Critics accused President George W. Bush’s administration of doing an end-run around the Senate.

To watch video of Marcus speaking in 2014 about anti-semitism on college campuses, see the video below—Marcus begins speaking after about 90 seconds:

Photo: Kenneth L. Marcus delivers welcoming remarks at the Louis D. Brandeis Center’s National Law Student Leadership Conference last March. (Teresa Kroeger/Louis D. Brandeis Center-File)

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