THE OFFICE OF CIVIL RIGHTS IS STILL OUT OF CONTROL
As it left office last year, Barack Obama’s administration made one final move in its crusade against campus due process: it requested a massive increase—$30.7 million, or 28.7 percent—in funding for the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The previous year, at a time when discretionary federal spending was barely rising, the office had received a 7 percent increase.
The Trump “skinny budget” contained an overall cut for the Department of Education, but included no specifics about OCR (or any other Education Department office). Based on its performance of the last six years in higher education, OCR deserves a dramatic reduction in its funding—rather than the huge boost it desires.
The Obama-era request envisions OCR hiring 157 new staff investigators. (OCR had asked for 200 new employees in fiscal year 2016 and received funding that allowed around 50 additional hires.) At a time of limited hiring by the federal government, why would OCR have demanded such a massive personnel increase?
A clue came in a recent article from BuzzFeed’s Tyler Kingkade. Over the past six years, Obama OCR heads Russlynn Ali and Catherine Lhamon—joined by grassroots accusers’ rights organizations such as Know Your IX—encouraged campus accusers to file Title IX complaints against their institutions.
These filings served multiple purposes for Lhamon and Ali. First, each Title IX complaint would give OCR jurisdiction to investigate individual universities, at which point the federal government could impose a “voluntary” resolution letter on the affected institution. These letters lock into place procedures for that school, even if the Trump administration eventually withdraws the Dear Colleague letter.
Second, Title IX complaints provided an opportunity for the Obama administration to stoke the public frenzy around the purported campus rape epidemic. In a highly unusual move, OCR publicized the identities of schools under investigation. This approach pressured the affected institutions to settle quickly while also leaving the impression that many of the nation’s elite institutions were indifferent to the large number of rapists in their midst.
Finally, the complaints provided a rationale for ever more frantic demands for more funding from Congress. As the 2016 budget justification explained, complaints addressing “sexual violence” were “both more complex and more high profile,” and “inadequate staffing” led to intolerable delays in handling the questions.
The resulting surge from a couple of dozen to hundreds of Title IX complaints against colleges and universities might have provided more than enough work for OCR. But, incredibly (and without announcing the shift publicly), Lhamon seized even more authority. According to Kingkade, who would have had no reason to misstate the claim (indeed, his reporting has consistently defended the accusers’ rights cause), Lhamon “expanded all Title IX sexual violence investigations to become institution-wide, so investigators reviewed all cases at a school rather than just the cases that sparked federal complaints.”
To translate: on her way out the door, Lhamon wanted to hire nearly 200 permanent employees, who would work under a true believer (Harvard’s ex-Title IX coordinator), because she had decided OCR would investigate not merely the complaints it received but thousands of other cases, even though no accuser had filed a Title IX complaint about any of these individual cases. On this matter, as on virtually all OCR-related matters during the Obama years, no sign of congressional oversight existed.
It would be difficult to imagine a more wasteful use of federal funds. Reducing OCR’s budget would help to bring the rogue office back under congressional oversight, and likely would force the new OCR head to (at the very least) temper Lhamon’s investigatory zeal.
The new administration will need to make key decisions not only on OCR’s funding level. Trump’s Education Department continues to enforce the flawed 2011 and 2014 guidance for sexual assault cases, which required colleges to use a preponderance of the evidence standard, discouraged cross-examination, instituted double-jeopardy regimes allowing accusers to appeal not-guilty findings, and urged subordinating public university students’ constitutional rights to due process to OCR’s interpretation of Title IX.
The slowness with which Trump has filled executive appointments has maximized the power of Obama holdovers. This situation is especially problematic with OCR, whose current head of enforcement, former Harvard Title IX director Mia Karvonides, dropped into her civil service position a mere three days before Trump was sworn in as president. Karvondes’ rushed appointment leaves the impression that the outgoing administration intended to maintain the unfair Obama rules regardless of what Trump did. Every day that passes without Trump staffers in OCR allows Karvonides to implement her agenda unchecked.
Finally, the Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department must decide whether to defend Obama’s OCR overreach. The key lawsuit challenging the 2011 Dear Colleague letter—a case from the University of Virginia, which remains pending—was coordinated by FIRE, and filed by lawyer Justin Dillon. The UVA adjudicator, a retired judge, admitted that “there were signs” that the accuser “may have been capable of effective consent,” but nonetheless found the student guilty, in a case that she deemed “very close” and “very difficult.”
The most recent filing in the case came around a month before Obama left office. The Justice Department urged dismissing the student’s complaint on grounds that OCR policies are, basically, set in stone. Since UVA “knows” that “OCR considers the preponderance of the evidence standard to be the only standard consistent” with Title IX, the university would have no choice but to maintain its unfair procedures under threat of punishment from federal bureaucrats—even if a federal court overturned the Dear Colleague letter.
Sessions used the excuse of a pending legal fight to reverse Obama’s era Title IX guidance designed to protect transgender teens. Will he defend the Dear Colleague letter, which actually harms accused students?
Moving beyond the Obama-era’s OCR abuses will take years. But Congress exercising the power of the purse is a needed first step in the process.