The Government's Role in Civil Rights Enforcement
For most cases involving civil rights violations and discrimination, one of your options is to file a complaint with the government at the federal or state level, and allow a government agency to take steps to enforce your civil rights. Filing a complaint will usually trigger an investigation into your claims by the agency, and depending on the specifics of your case, the government may take further action on your behalf (i.e. ordering mandatory mediation of the dispute, or charging the offending party in court).
For some types of cases, a claim must be filed with the government before any private lawsuit may be pursued (more on this below). And keep in mind that in most instances involving civil rights violation or discrimination complaints and the government, complaints and claims must be filed within a certain amount of time after the alleged violation.
Federal and State Agencies that Enforce Civil Rights
At both the federal and state levels of government, agencies hear and investigate civil rights violations (including discrimination). In most cases, neither the offender nor the victim need be affiliated with the government (i.e. a person alleging employment discrimination need not be a government employee); the mere allegation of a civil rights violation triggers the government's interest in investigating and (in some instances) resolving the claims.
At the federal level of government, agencies such as the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigate claims of civil rights violations and discrimination. State agencies may also investigate a complaint for civil rights violations or discrimination, and may work alongside (or in place of) a federal agency. For example, employees who allege job discrimination in California may file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. As part of its standard procedure, that state agency will usually send the complaint to the EEOC at the federal level, so that it becomes a "dual filing."
Whether your complaint is handled at the federal or state level will depend on the facts of your case and the claims involved (what laws were allegedly violated, etc.). What matters most is that your complaint gets filed; after that, the agencies will decide where and how your case will be handled. For example, a complaint for education discrimination filed with the U.S. Department of Justice may be referred to the U.S. Department of Education, or to a state agency.
Filing a Government Complaint is Mandatory in Some Cases
For certain types of discrimination and civil rights violation allegations, you MUST file a complaint with the relevant government agency before you file any private lawsuit in court, and these agencies set strict time limits for filing the complaint. For example, for allegations of almost all types of employment discrimination, the charging party (i.e. an employee alleging discrimination) must file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before filing any private lawsuit, and must do so within 180 days of the alleged offense.
Protect Your Civil Rights with Legal Help
If you believe you have suffered a civil rights violation, and are contemplating filing a claim with the government, the best place to start is to speak with an experienced civil rights attorney. Important decisions related to your case can be complicated - including which laws apply, whether government enforcement is possible, and if so, what agency to contact. A civil rights attorney will evaluate all aspects of your case and explain all options available to you, in order to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.