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Seeking full enforcement of Civil Rights Act, Talbot Ross proposes unit in AG’s Office

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Seeking full enforcement of Civil Rights Act, Talbot Ross proposes unit in AG’s Office

Feb 22, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Emma Davis
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Seeking full enforcement of Civil Rights Act, Talbot Ross proposes unit in AG’s Office
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Maine House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross presides over the first session of 2024 of the House of Representatives in the State House in Augusta. Jan. 3, 2024. Photo: Jim Neuger

Maine established a state Civil Rights Act 35 years ago, at a time when hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and skinheads were on the rise, to prohibit violence or threats of violence motivated by bias based on characteristics such as race. 

As incidents of hate crimes rise in Maine, keeping with national trends, House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that the state’s remedies for civil rights violations should be afforded a place in state government. 

Talbot Ross proposed establishing a civil rights unit within the Office of the Attorney General to investigate complaints about possible violations of the Maine Civil Rights Act. 

Today, the Office of the Attorney General enforces the act by bringing a civil action for injunctive or other appropriate relief. The majority of these referrals come from law enforcement officers, according to Attorney General Aaron Frey, who said his office is currently divvying up this work within its existing staff and without specific appropriations.

Talbot Ross said her bill has a singular vision in mind: the full enforcement of the Maine Civil Rights Act. Her plan would do so by making it clear for the public where they can go if they think their civil rights have been violated, requiring continued civil rights training for officers and establishing a panel to review the work of the unit and inform future policy changes. 

“This is not just a matter of reorganizing state government for the sake of expansion or improved functioning,” Talbot Ross told the committee. “This is a moment in which we can uphold our promise to Mainers now and in the future that we will do everything in our power to protect their rights as Americans and Mainers and to ensure that justice is done.”

How would the Civil Rights Unit operate?

If the proposal becomes law, the civil rights unit would receive and investigate complaints about possible violations of the Maine Civil Rights Act, which prohibits bias based on race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, physical or mental disability or sexual orientation. 

Talbot Ross also proposed amending her bill to include age, which is not protected by the Maine Civil Rights Act but is protected under the Maine Human Rights Act. The distinction between the two, and the entities tasked to enforce them, was a point of confusion during the hearing on Wednesday. 

The Maine Human Rights Commission currently enforces anti-discrimination laws within the broader characteristics protected under the Maine Human Rights Act; whereas, under the Maine Civil Rights Act, the Attorney General’s Office is tasked with enforcement through civil action. 

The proposed civil rights unit would take over the work currently being done by staff volunteering to handle this enforcement within the Attorney General’s Office. 

Frey said his office received about 90 complaints last year and secured injunctions in five cases. He said he does not think the lack of dedicated staff has hindered their ability to do the work but that a dedicated civil rights unit would help.

Former Maine resident Nathan Kempthorne, who submitted testimony in support of the bill, raised concern about this capacity, given reports of inadequate staffing and limited resources at the Maine Human Rights Commision, which comparatively handled hundreds more complaints than the Attorney General’s Office last year. Kempthorne has been testifying over the past several years to create a civil rights unit after his wife and daughter experienced racism at a private high school in Washington County.

Public concern about addressing hate crimes led to the commission established by the Legislature to advise the state government on racial disparities to identify the proposal to create a civil rights unit as a priority. 

Rae Sage, policy coordinator for the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Tribal Populations, told the Judiciary Committee that the response to hate crimes throughout the state varies depending on the capacity, training and presence of local law enforcement.

Citing the 2022 Maine Crime Victimization Report, Sage said most victims did not report crimes to law enforcement and that people of color were more likely to have experienced a hate crime than their white peers. “We cannot let displays of hate stand unanswered and unchecked,” Sage said. 

Under the bill, the unit would have to make “numerous unique public reporting methods” available for the public to discreetly submit civil rights violation complaints. It would also be tasked with educating the public on the Civil Rights Act, a component that Talbot Ross said is currently lacking. 

The Maine Office of the Attorney General created the Civil Rights Team Project more than two decades ago, which engages K-12 students in discussions about bias-based behaviors, including violations of the Maine Civil Rights Act. 

While this type of education exists in hundreds of participating schools in the state, adults do not have a place within the community to seek out such information. Talbot Ross urged the Legislature to invest more in education on civil rights issues as a means of prevention. 

“The best way to counter hate is to educate people,” Talbot Ross said. 

Her proposal builds on legislation passed last year, including a requirement for all law enforcement agencies to have at least one trained civil rights officer. 

Talbot Ross’ bill would mandate that all civil rights officers complete ongoing civil rights training provided by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, though it does not provide details about frequency or content. 

The unit would also have to submit annual reports to the Legislature, outlining complaints received and any civil action that resulted. 

Accompanied by a review panel

In addition to creating a civil rights unit, Talbot Ross’ bill would establish a civil rights review panel, which she said would operate like the deadly force review panel that assesses fatal police shootings. 

Legislators questioned this panel’s authority, raising concern about whether it could make legal determinations about claims of civil rights violations, which Talbot Ross clarified is not the case. 

“It doesn’t have the power to change the outcome,” Talbot Ross said of civil rights cases. “It has the power to review what happened and then make recommendations on course corrections that we see need to be made.”

The review panel would be tasked to review the annual reports of the civil rights unit and submit annual reports of their own to the Legislature that assess the unit’s work. 

Talbot Ross plans to amend the proposed makeup of the panel, which committee members and those testifying also raised concerns about on Wednesday. The drafted language outlines a 13-member panel of police leaders, attorneys, representatives of statewide organizations with missions related to racial justice and civil liberties, as well as citizens. 

Talbot Ross and Frey suggested having membership be largely lawyers and removing the members of the public to ensure confidentiality. During testimony, a representative of the ACLU of Maine raised concern about having police leaders on the panel, given that the body would be largely reviewing decisions made by police. 

The committee indicated it would more thoroughly discuss membership in future work sessions on the bill. Talbot Ross said she doesn’t know what fiscal note for the bill will be at this time.