WASHINGTON -- In one of the first nominations to fill a long list of vacancies  at the Education Department, President Obama has nominated Catherine Lhamon,  a California lawyer with a history of working on legal issues surrounding race and class, to be the department's assistant secretary for civil rights.
The Office for Civil Rights, led by Russlynn Ali until December, has stepped up its investigations and enforcement during the Obama administration, with a particular focus on sexual harassment and Title IX complaints . But that focus could change when the Supreme Court hands down its ruling in a highly anticipated case over affirmative action in the coming weeks. The court is widely expected to limit the use of race in college admissions, and the Office for Civil Rights will be responsible for implementing the decision.
Lhamon, the director of impact litigation at Public Counsel Law Center, a pro bono firm in Los Angeles, has focused more on K-12 issues in her 17-year career, she said in an interview Monday. Among the notable cases was a class action against the State of California over equal access to quality textbooks, facilities and teachers that eventually forced wide-ranging changes to K-12 policies in the state.
But as the former director of the racial justice program at the ACLU of Southern California, Lhamon has also worked on issues related to affirmative action. She represented plaintiffs in Cantrell v. Granholm, a lawsuit against Michigan’s Proposition 2, which banned affirmative action in the state.
That case was eventually combined with another case, Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action v. Granholm. The Supreme Court will hear arguments  in the combined case as early as this fall, but after the Fisher decision.
“The full gamut of issues that I would see at the higher ed level are issues I’ve worked on intensively in my career,” Lhamon said, including access to college preparatory curriculums and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
It’s a background that might make her suited to look into another question recently raised by a Century Foundation report: whether community colleges are providing “separate and unequal” education in the U.S. -- including litigation strategies to remedy the problem. Lhamon said she was familiar with the report but declined to comment further on its possible civil rights implications.
The Education Department position requires Senate confirmation. President Obama also nominated James Cole Jr., deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Transportation, to be general counsel at the Education Department.