RICHMOND (January 5, 2021)—Attorney General Mark R. Herring today announced the creation of the Office of Civil Rights within the Office of Attorney General to expand, enhance, and centralize his ongoing work to protect Virginians from discrimination and to secure and expand the rights of all Virginians. The new designation of the Office of Civil Rights is the culmination of a multiyear plan to expand the authority and resources dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Virginians, and to place the protection of civil rights at the center of the mission of the Office of Attorney General.
Additionally, Attorney General Herring is again supporting legislation to make the Office of Civil Rights a permanent feature of the Office of Attorney General, ensuring that protection of Virginians’ civil rights will always be a priority. This year’s legislation has been developed in conjunction with Del. Charniele Herring after previous efforts championed by Del. Alfonso Lopez were blocked in Republican-controlled committees.
“During my time as attorney general we have dramatically shifted the role and mission of the office to ensure that the protection and expansion of Virginians’ rights is at the center of all we do,” said Attorney General Herring. “Over the last few years we have added legal authority, resources, and incredible legal talent to our team, which now allows us to formally create the OAG’s first Office of Civil Rights.
“The new Office of Civil Rights is an historic step in turning the page on a past when the Commonwealth, and even its attorney general, was too often a threat to civil rights, rather than a guardian and champion for Virginians’ rights. In too many instances in the past, attorneys general fought to protect unjust and unconstitutional violations of Virginians rights, like going all the way to the Supreme Court to defend school segregation in Davis v. Prince Edward, a ban on interracial marriage in the Loving case, or unequal educational opportunities for women in the VMI case. But we have shown Virginians a different vision of an attorney general who fights for their rights no matter who threatens them, and we have won time and again.
“The Office of Civil Rights will enhance our ability to protect Virginians from discrimination in housing, employment, and public life, as well as allow us to tackle new responsibilities, like ‘pattern and practice’ investigations that can root out and end unconstitutional policing and enforcing protections against discrimination for LGBTQ Virginians. And the Office of Civil Rights will be a natural home for additional civil rights initiatives we hope to launch in conjunction with the General Assembly, like more robust protection of voting rights, protections for the civil rights of Virginians with disability, and more tools to combat healthcare discrimination and ensure education equity.
“I want to thank all of the legislators who have helped us expand our civil rights jurisdiction and resources, including Senator Lucas, Delegate Herring, Delegate Lopez and others. They believed in my vision for a strong civil rights portfolio in the Office of Attorney General and have helped us make it a reality. With their support and leadership, this is the year we will make this work a permanent feature of the OAG.”
The creation of the OAG’s first Office of Civil Rights continues Attorney General Herring’s work throughout his two terms to secure, defend, and expand the rights of Virginians. Attorney General Herring:
The newly-constituted Office of Civil Rights will expand and reorganize the existing Division of Human Rights, which was transferred from the executive branch into the OAG in 2012, to include additional authorities and responsibilities that Attorney General Herring has secured from the General Assembly.
Under this new organization, the Office of Civil Rights will grow to a staff of 13, including seven attorneys and six professional staff, including investigators, working to protect Virginians’ civil rights and put a stop to violations. When Attorney General Herring took office, the Division of Human Rights had just one attorney and three additional staff members.
The new Office of Civil Rights can be reached by phone at (804) 225-2292, or by email at [email protected].
In order to ensure the protection of civil rights remains an enduring mission of the OAG, Attorney General Herring is proposing legislation with Del. Charniele Herring to make the Office of Civil Rights a permanent, statutory entity and responsibility. Attorney General Herring previously supported legislation sponsored by Del. Alfonso Lopez in the 2019 session that would have statutorily created a Division of Civil Rights in the Office of Attorney General, but the bill was blocked by Republicans and left in Committee without receiving a vote.
“Attorney General Herring has brought the office and role of attorney general so far in such a short time, and we want to make sure his focus on civil rights and equal opportunity remains central to the Office of Attorney General for generations to come,” said Del. Charniele Herring. “This legislation will send a clear signal that the Commonwealth believes in equality for all, and will actively work to protect the rights and dignity of all its people.”
“The creation of the Office of Civil Rights is the culmination of years of hard work and I’m absolutely thrilled to see it come to fruition,” said Del. Lopez. “When we proposed this idea a few years ago, Republicans left it to languish in committee without so much as a vote, but we weren’t deterred. Attorney General Herring kept the idea alive and took the initiative to make it happen on his own, including working with me to create the groundbreaking ‘pattern and practice’ investigative authority that will be housed in the Office of Civil Rights. I look forward to working together again this year to make the Office of Civil Rights a strong, permanent force to protect the rights of Virginians.”
The Office of Civil Rights’ areas of focus and responsibility will include the following:
Conducting Pattern or Practice Investigations to Identify and Eliminate Unconstitutional and Illegal Policing
During the 2020 Special Session on criminal justice reform, Attorney General Herring worked with Senator L. Louise Lucas and Del. Lopez to secure authority for his office to conduct “pattern or practice” investigations of law enforcement agencies to identify and put a stop to unconstitutional practices, such as patterns of excessive force, illegal searches, biased policing, or other unconstitutional practices, making Virginia one of the first states in the nation to give its attorney general this authority.The Office of Civil Rights will include dedicated personnel to conduct these specialized investigations into systemic instances of unconstitutional policing or violations of civil rights by law enforcement agencies.“The ‘pattern and practice’ legislation that Attorney General Herring and I got passed really puts Virginia on the leading edge of state-level efforts to end unconstitutional and illegal policing. It’s a real testament to Attorney General Herring’s commitment to protecting Virginians’ civil rights and coming up with creative solutions to do so,” said Senator Lucas. “I’m thrilled to hear that these important investigations will have a home in the new Office of Civil Rights, and I look forward to the good work this team will do.”For decades the U.S. Department of Justice was a reliable partner in identifying and ending unconstitutional policing practices, often through negotiated agreements for reforms, called “consent decrees,” in cities such as Chicago, Baltimore, and Ferguson, Missouri. Under the Trump Administration the DOJ has explicitly walked away from this responsibility, making it more important for state attorneys general to have this important tool.
Combating LGBTQ and Gender-based Discrimination
Attorney General Herring has fought for years to better protect the rights and safety of LGBTQ Virginians. He was the first attorney general in the country to successfully argue that his own state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples violated the Constitution and should be struck down, and he successfully pushed legislation to update Virginia’s hate crime laws to include crimes committed on the basis of gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation.“Since his first days in office, Attorney General Herring has stood up for the rights and dignity of all Virginians, especially LGBTQ Virginians,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, sponsor of the new Virginia Values Act, which offers Virginia’s first state-level protections against discrimination for LGBTQ Virginians. “This new office sends a powerful message to Virginians and the world that our top law enforcement official will stand up for each and every one of us, no matter where we come from, how we look, how we worship, or whom we love.”
“The new Office of Civil Rights is going to be a powerful force for protecting Virginians from discrimination and for protecting and expanding the civil rights of all of our fellow Virginians,” said Del. Mark Sickles, sponsor of the Virginia Values Act. “Attorney General Herring is showing real leadership and vision by centralizing his work to combat housing, employment, and other kinds of discrimination under this umbrella, and I look forward to working with him this session to add additional protections for Virginians with disabilities to the Office’s portfolio.”
The new Virginia Values Act includes explicit protections that make it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ Virginians in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodation. The Office of Civil Rights will now include additional personnel to investigate allegations that someone has been fired, denied housing, refused service, or otherwise discriminated against on the basis of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or another protected characteristic.
Additionally, Attorney General Herring is actively defending the Virginia Values Act against legal challenges brought in both state and federal court.
Combating Housing Discrimination
The Office of Civil Rights will incorporate the previous Division of Human Rights’ responsibility for prosecuting instances of housing discrimination before the Virginia Fair Housing Board, including new protections against LGBTQ discrimination in renting or selling housing, and violations of Virginia’s new ban on “income discrimination, which Attorney General Herring and his team supported in the 2020 legislative session.Attorney General Herring’s office has pursued approximately 65 cases of housing discrimination, securing more than $610,000 in compensation for victims during his time as attorney general. The Office of Civil Rights will also focus on protecting LGBTQ Virginians from housing discrimination under the provisions of the newly enacted Virginia Values Act.
“Attorney General Herring’s team has worked tirelessly to combat housing discrimination of all forms in Virginia, and the Office of Civil Rights will bring even greater focus to an issue that is fundamental to the health and success of Virginia communities,” said Del. David Bulova. “Virginians should feel confident knowing that their attorney general is fighting for safe, stable, affordable housing and protecting them from discrimination when they rent or buy housing.”
Combating Discrimination in Employment and Places of Public Accommodation
The Office of Civil Rights will also incorporate the previous Division of Human Rights’ responsibility for investigating instances of employment discrimination or discrimination in places of public accommodation. This includes investigating and taking action against businesses that pay employees less or make hiring, promotion, or termination decisions based on race, gender, sexual orientation or another protected class, or businesses that refuse service to someone because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or status as a member of another protected class.Attorney General Herring’s office has opened approximately 360 of these cases, securing more than $443,000 in compensation for victims during his time as attorney general.
Protecting the Rights of Expectant and New Mothers
The Office of Civil Rights will also investigate and enforce violations of Virginia’s new laws, which Attorney General Herring supported in the 2020 session, that protect pregnant women and new mothers from discrimination at their workplace or in places of public accommodation. These laws will prevent employers from firing, failing to promote, or failing to hire women who are or may become pregnant, or women who require an accommodation for nursing or lactation. Failure to provide reasonable accommodations for a woman’s pregnancy, childbirth, or lactation needs now constitutes unlawful sex or gender discrimination in violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act.