December 30, 2005

Commentary:

Bush politicizes Justice Department

By Marjorie Press Lindblom and Robert E. Harrington

We have serious concerns about the Bush administration’s commitment to full and fair enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws.

Since its creation under President Eisenhower in 1957, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has served as the primary guardian of citizens — through both Republican and Democratic administrations — against illegal racial, ethnic and sexual discrimination.

But the Bush administration is infecting the division with an unprecedented level of politicization, which has undermined civil rights enforcement and tarnished the ideal of equal justice under law.

In 2003, eight career Justice Department lawyers, including the chief of the voting section, were assigned to review a high-profile Texas redistricting plan. They unanimously recommended rejecting the plan because of its discriminatory impact. But the political appointees approved the plan — and in the next election Texas sent five new Republicans to Congress.

Such a decision raises deep concerns about the neutrality of the Department of Justice on the most important and sensitive voting rights issues that it handles.

Similarly, earlier this year the Civil Rights Division approved another controversial state law — the Georgia voter identification law — even though career Justice Department lawyers strongly objected to it.

The staff lawyers conducted a thorough factual review of the law, and in an extensive memorandum dated Aug. 25, 2005, they recommended that the Justice Department challenge the law because it was hostile toward African-American voters and it would seriously undermine their right to vote. The very next day, political appointees overruled them. Subsequently, federal courts have enjoined this law as an unconstitutional poll tax, a tactic used in the Jim Crow era to disenfranchise minority voters.

Nor has the Bush administration been straight with Congress about how it is running the Civil Rights Division. During his confirmation hearings in October, Wan J. Kim, now assistant attorney general for civil rights, stated in response to written questions from Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., that “a team of seven career professionals from the Voting Rights Section” had determined that the Georgia law should be approved, even though the Aug. 25 memorandum stated the opposite.

The Civil Rights Division has been diverted from enforcing civil rights laws to attacking programs designed to increase diversity. The Division’s employment section recently issued a threat to Southern Illinois University to discontinue its use of graduate fellowships aimed at diversifying a graduate program with less than 8 percent minority participation or face litigation brought by the Department of Justice. The Division took this action at the urging of the so-called Center for Equal Opportunity, a politically conservative organization dedicated to rolling back the enforcement of civil rights in our country.

Hiring practices and the management of career attorneys by political appointees also demonstrate the politicization of the Division. The civil service is designed to be above the fray so that, notwithstanding inevitable changes in political leadership, the federal government will retain employees who will enforce our nation’s civil rights laws effectively and without a political agenda.

But during this administration, changes in longstanding department hiring procedures have subverted this process, almost completely eliminating input from career staff and rewarding those willing to follow a political agenda that would eviscerate our historic civil rights laws.

Since 2002, the Bush administration has demoted, formally or informally, at least six longtime career senior managers, who had held their positions through past Republican and Democratic administrations.

By draining a vital workforce of its expertise, seriously lowering the morale of all career staff and undermining the work of career attorneys in the division, the Bush administration has caused many lawyers in the civil rights division to resign. It has then replaced them with new hires with little experience in, or commitment to, civil rights enforcement.

As a result of this politicization of the Civil Rights Division, the Bush Justice Department is not fully enforcing civil rights laws. During the entire Bush administration, there has not been one Voting Rights Act lawsuit (and only a handful of employment discrimination lawsuits) filed alleging discrimination against African-Americans.

Our nation should not tolerate this assault on fair and balanced law enforcement. To continue and renew our quest for equal justice under law, it is imperative that both the Senate and the House conduct vigorous oversight of the Civil Rights Division and halt this attack on the federal government’s most important civil rights enforcement institution.

Marjorie Press Lindblom and Robert E. Harrington are co-chairs of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (www.lawyerscomm.org). They can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org. Reprinted from the Progressive Media Project (http://progressive.org)

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