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Civil RightsAs Attorney General, Bill Lockyer established for the first time within the state Department of Justice a new Civil Rights Enforcement Section dedicated exclusively to civil rights enforcement. He directed this new section to work aggressively to protect Californians from discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, religion, age, marital status, sexual orientation or disability.

"We owe it to our children, the future of California, to fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. that people will 'not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,'" Attorney General Lockyer said in establishing the new section in January 1999.

The mission of the Civil Rights Enforcement Section is to work with the public, state, federal and local government agencies, and with civil rights and community groups to identify civil rights issues and vigorously prosecute those who have violated the law, as well as seek the strongest remedies to deter further violations of those laws.

What exactly is a ‘civil right’?
Broadly speaking, a civil right is a right created by a governmental body. For example, the right to free speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It is also protected as a right in many state’s Constitutions. Because this right is created by the Federal government, or your State’s government, it is a "civil right".

The rights that are most commonly referred to as "civil rights" involve the protections against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, or national origin.

The most prominent example of a statute protecting civil rights is the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 which, among other things, prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in places of public accommodation. There are also many laws that make it illegal to discriminate in employment settings.

How are these civil rights protected?
There are two primary mechanisms for protecting citizens’ civil rights:
(1) Statutes that make certain types of discrimination unlawful, and authorize government agencies to act to prohibit violations of the rights granted in the statute, and
(2) Statutes that allow individuals who have been harmed as a result of prohibited discrimination to sue for money damages or injunctive relief if their civil rights have been violated.

Is it possible to recover attorney’s fees?
Yes. A prevailing party -- even one who is partially successful -- generally may ask the court to award reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses of litigation in a civil rights lawsuit. The laws’ purpose in allowing awards of attorneys fees is to encourage the enforcement of civil rights laws. There is no provision for paying attorney’s fees for unsuccessful civil rights litigants.

When is a governmental employee acting ‘under color of law’?
Officials act under "color of law" when they are either actually carrying out their official duties or they act in a manner which makes it seem as if they are. For instance, a police officer arresting someone while on duty is clearly acting "under color of law." In addition, an off-duty police officer showing his or her badge is most likely acting under color of law. Some actions taken by private institutions that are doing work for the government (such as a university performing a government contract) may also be considered to be "under color of law."

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