Congress Enacts “Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act”

In January, President Trump signed into law the “Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018 (Public Law 115-426). It authorizes the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to create a collection of unsolved civil rights case files. In addition, the law establishes a Civil Rights Cold Case Review Board to determine which records can be released to the public. To learn more, click here.

The new law would make federal information about investigations of unsolved civil rights cases more readily available to the public. Civil rights cold cases are defined as those occurring between 1940 and 1979 and include cases related to conspiracy against rights, deprivation of rights under color of law, cases related to federally protected activities, peonage and involuntary servitude, violations of the Fair Housing Act, and those cases related to Federal laws that would be enforced by the DOJ Civil Rights Division.

The law establishes a process nearly identical to the JFK Assassination Records Review Act, which also dealt with extremely sensitive and classified information. The Civil Rights Cold Case Collection Act of 2018 establishes a special collection at NARA for civil rights cold cases and requires Federal agencies with records related to civil rights cold cases to transmit them to the National Archives. NARA must establish criteria for transmitting copies of civil rights cold case records to the agency.

The Civil Rights Cold Case Review Board is established as an “independent agency.”  The law delineates the appointment process for five individuals to serve on the review board, sets timelines for appointments, names groups qualified to recommend appointments, and the qualifications required for members of the review board. It specifically names the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Society of American Archivists and American Bar Association as groups to be consulted in the nomination process. The law requires at least one board member be a “professional historian” and one attorney. The board will be provided with a staff and board members are treated and compensated as government employees.

Since the law was enacted while the National Archives was closed during the government shutdown, the various milestones to be met are expected to slip beyond those delineated in the law.