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The Bush administration embarks on a program to politicize the Justice Department’s civil rights division (CRD). The CRD is staffed by some 350 permanently employed lawyers who take complaints, investigate problems, propose lawsuits, litigate cases, and negotiate settlements. For decades, the decisions on who should fill these positions have been made by civil servants and not by political appointees. The CRD is an obvious target for politicization, and until now the Justice Department has tried to ensure that no such politicization ever took place. “There was obviously oversight from the front office [where the political appointees work], but I don’t remember a time when an individual went through that process and was not accepted,” Charles Cooper, a former lawyer in the CRD during the Reagan administration, will later recall. “I just don’t think there was any quarrel with the quality of individuals who were being hired. And we certainly weren’t placing any kind of political litmus test on… the individuals who were ultimately determined to be best qualified.”
Hiring Conservatives in Place of Career Lawyers - But Attorney General John Ashcroft changes those rules, without making any sort of official announcement. The hiring committee is not formally disbanded, but it stops having meetings scheduled, and the political appointees begin making career hiring decisions. In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write, “The result of the unprecedented change was a quiet remaking of the civil rights division, effectively turning hundreds of career jobs into politically appointed positions.” No longer would career attorneys be hired for their civil rights background; instead, lawyers from conservative law schools or from conservative legal organizations such as the Republican National Lawyers Association are given favorable treatment. Some of the new hires worked with Kenneth Starr’s Whitewater investigative team or had worked with other prominent conservatives, including former Attorney General Edwin Meese or Senator Trent Lott (R-MO). Some list themselves as belonging to prominent Christian political organizations that promote socially conservative views such as opposition to abortion and to affirmative action.
Shift towards 'Reverse Discrimination' Cases - After the new hires are in place, the division shifts its focus: instead of working on voter rights, employment discrimination, and other such cases affecting African-Americans and Hispanics, the division begins working to develop “reverse discrimination” cases in favor of whites and Christians. (Savage 2007, pp. 295-297)
Driving Career Employees Away - Over the next few years, the types of cases pursued by the CRD changes drastically (see 2005, 2006, and 2006), and career attorneys with decades of service begin leaving the division in large numbers. The Justice Department will even encourage older hires to leave by offering them a buyout. Savage will write, “With every new vacancy, the administration gained a new change to use the new rules to hire another lawyer more in line with its political agenda.” CRD attorney David Becker will tell a 2006 NAACP hearing: “Even during other administrations that were perceived as being hostile to civil rights enforcement, career staff did not leave in numbers approaching this level. In the place of those experienced litigators and investigators, this administration has, all too often, hired inexperienced ideologues, virtually none of which have any civil rights or voting rights experience.” Some supporters say that the Bush administration is merely righting an imbalance, where the CRD was previously top-heavy with liberal lawyers interested in protecting African-Americans over other groups, but one of the CRD’s top career lawyers from 1965 through 1994, Jim Turner, says, “To say that the civil rights division had a special penchant for hiring liberal lawyers is twisting things.” (Savage 2007, pp. 298-299)
Six lawyers and two analysts at the US Department of Justice (DOJ) conclude, in a classified memo, that the controversial Texas Congressional redistricting plan headed by Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX—see 2002-2004) is illegal. The memo states that the plan violates the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) by illegally diluting African-American and Hispanic voting power in two Congressional districts. The plan also eliminated several other districts that contained substantial minority voting blocs. Texas Republicans knew the plan would likely be found to be discriminatory, the lawyers write in the memo. The memo says that the Texas legislature went ahead with the plan anyway because it would maximize the number of Republicans the state would send to Congress. The memo concludes, “The State of Texas has not met its burden in showing that the proposed Congressional redistricting plan does not have a discriminatory effect.” A concurring opinion written by one of the DOJ lawyers finds: “This result quite plainly indicates a reduction in minority voting strength. The state’s argument that it has increased minority voting strength… simply does not stand up under careful analysis.”
DeLay, Aide Ignored Concerns about Voting Rights Discrimination - One of the senior aides to DeLay, James W. Ellis, is cited in the memo as pushing for the plan despite fears that the DOJ would reject it. According to the memo, Ellis and other DeLay aides forced the adoption of the plan over two other versions adopted by the Texas Legislature that would not have raised as many concerns about voting rights discrimination. The memo quotes Ellis in an October 2003 memo writing: “We need our map, which has been researched and vetted for months. The pre-clearance and political risks are the delegation’s and we are willing to assume those risks, but only with our map.” Later testimony will show that DeLay and Ellis forced last-minute changes in the map; DeLay attended many of the meetings that produced the map, and Ellis worked through the state’s lieutenant governor and a state senator to shepherd the changes that he and DeLay desired. The final changes were not necessary, the memo finds, except to advance partisan political goals.
Findings Overruled - Regardless of the findings, the lawyers and analysts’ judgment is overruled by senior officials at the DOJ, all appointed by the Bush administration. The DOJ’s civil rights division will affirm the plan as legal and valid. The memo is kept secret for almost two years, and the lawyers and analysts involved in the case, including the authors of the memo, are bound to silence under an unusual gag rule. The DOJ is under no legal burden to accept the findings of the memo, but historically, such findings are given great weight in DOJ rulings. Former Justice Department lawyer Mark Posner later says that it is “highly unusual” for the DOJ to overrule a unanimous finding such as this one: “In this kind of situation, where everybody agrees at least on the staff level… that is a very, very strong case. The fact that everybody agreed that there were reductions in minority voting strength, and that they were significant, raises a lot of questions as to why it was” approved. (US Department of Justice 12/12/2003 ; Eggen 12/2/2005) In December 2005, the Washington Post will reveal the existence of the memo (see December 2, 2005). Days after the Post article, Posner will write an article for the prestigious legal Web site FindLaw that will opine that the DOJ memo was ignored for partisan political reasons, and not because of honest differences of opinion between legal experts (see December 5, 2005).
Bradley Schlozman, a deputy in the Justice Department’s Voting Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division (CRD), receives an email from his supervisor, John Tanner, asking him to bring coffee for both of them to a meeting they are both scheduled to attend. Schlozman asks how Tanner likes his coffee and Tanner replies that he likes it “Mary Frances Berry style—black and bitter.” Berry, an African-American, chaired the US Commission on Civil Rights from 1993 to 2004. Schlozman forwards the email exchange to several CRD officials with the comment, “Y’all will appreciate Tanner’s response.” Shortly thereafter, he is forced to write a written apology for his action. (Kravitz 1/13/2009)
A five-member team in the Justice Department’s civil rights division reviews a new Georgia law requiring voters to present a photo ID or buy one for $20. Four of the five members say the law will disproportionately suppress minority votes because minorities are less likely to have a driver’s license or passport. Division supervisors—Bush administration political appointees—approve the law in spite of the team’s conclusion. A judge later throws the law out, comparing it to a Jim Crow-era poll tax (see September 19, 2006). The single member of the division team who favored the law is a recent political hire, a graduate of the University of Mississippi Law School, and a member of the Federalist Society and the Christian Legal Society (see Fall 2002 and After). (Savage 2007, pp. 297)
The Justice Department is sent a letter, apparently via surface mail, that, according to a department control sheet, “request[s] an investigation into the voting irregularities and the certification of the Washington State 2004 election” (see December 23, 2004 - January 12, 2005, December 29-30, 2004, January 7, 2005, January 24-28, 2005, February 4, 2005, and March 5, 2005). The sender of the letter is redacted from the control sheet. The letter is marked as received on March 10. On March 15, the letter is referred to the Civil Rights Division “for component response,” and referred to several other bureaus within the department, including the Offices of the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General. The Civil Rights Division sends a reply on March 24, 2005. The reply is not included in the documents later released by the Justice Department. (US Department of Justice 6/21/2007 )
John Tanner, the head of the civil rights division’s Voting Rights Section (VRS) in the Justice Department, writes a four-page letter to Nick A. Soulas, a civil prosecutor in Franklin County, Ohio. The letter is a notification that Tanner is ordering the closure of a VRS investigation into the unbalanced distribution of voting machines in Franklin County, which contains the large urban area of Columbus. Complaints had been filed alleging that districts with a predominance of white voters received a disparately larger number of voting machines than districts with a predominance of African-American voters. Although that disparity has been proven, Tanner writes that the disparity does not violate the Voting Rights Act (see August 6, 1965). The letter essentially defends the disparity, arguing that the use of such disparate numbers of machines is acceptable. It also praises the Franklin County Board of Elections for buying approximately 2,100 new voting machines. Sources, including a VRS staffer who left the section in late 2004, will later tell the citizen journalism project ePluribus Media (ePM) that many inside and outside the VRS found the letter “repugnant.” Moreover, they will tell the ePM researchers that the DOJ almost never writes such a letter: when it finishes an investigation it deems unworthy of pursuing, it merely sends a letter informing the involved parties that it is closing the investigation. For Tanner to write and send such a letter is highly unusual. And, Tanner’s is the only signature on the letter. No staff attorneys sign off on the letter. Sources will tell ePM that the lone signature apparently indicates that Tanner was the only person working the investigation. Section chiefs such as Tanner almost never handle investigations. ePM will say that the letter presents what it calls “convoluted excuses for why black voters didn’t have enough machines and white voters did.” (US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division 6/29/2005 ; ePluribus Media 5/7/2007)
Bradley Schlozman, the head of the voting rights section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division (CRD), writes an op-ed published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution alleging that the newspaper is guilty of “confus[ing] and misrepresent[ing]” the facts surrounding his office’s approval of a controversial Georgia voter identification statute (see 2005). The voter ID law has been criticized as being discriminatory against minorities and being designed to suppress minority voting. Schlozman says that the newspaper’s publication of a leaked internal memorandum from his office was unfair, as it “was merely a draft that did not incorporate the analytical work and extensive research conducted by all the attorneys assigned to the matter.” He goes on to accuse the paper of failing to report that the memo “did not represent the recommendation of the veteran career chief of the Civil Rights Division’s voting section, to whom preclearance approval decisions are expressly delegated by federal regulation.” Schlozman says that the voter ID law is “clearly not racially retrogressive within the limited scope of the Voting Rights Act,” and denies that demanding a number of identification papers from minority voters has ever been shown to have “any adverse impact on minority voters.” Data in the leaked memo showed that a significant proportion of African-American voters would be prevented from voting by the voter ID law; Schlozman writes that “corrected data… not incorporated in the leaked memo… indicate that African-American citizens are actually slightly more likely than white citizens to possess one of the necessary forms of identification.” He concludes: “Attorneys of the voting section have worked diligently to enforce voting laws and have achieved concrete, measurable advances for a record number of minority voters. We are enormously proud of this accomplishment.” (Schlozman 11/25/2005) The Georgia voter identification law will be overturned by a federal court as illegal and discriminatory (see September 19, 2006).
Mark Posner, a law professor at American University who served in the civil rights division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) for 23 years and supervised the DOJ’s “Section 5” reviews under the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) for 10 years, writes an article for the prestigious legal information Web site FindLaw that says the DOJ found the controversial Texas redistricting plan (see 2002-2004) legal for purely partisan political reasons. Posner’s article is spurred by the recent revelation of a 2003 DOJ memo (see December 12, 2003 and December 2, 2005) that found the redistricting plan to be illegal, and the Washington Post’s finding that the memo was rejected by political appointees at the DOJ, who saw to it that the plan was approved by the civil rights division. Posner is more specific than the Post article, writing: “A Republican appointee overrode the staff recommendation and granted approval, allowing the plan to go into effect for the 2004 Congressional elections. In so doing, the official sided with his political party and with one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington.” Posner notes that the Bush administration has defended the decision, claiming that it was merely the result of what he calls “an honest disagreement between the career and political staff about how to apply the law to a complex set of facts.” In spite of the defense, including a statement by the attorney general, Posner writes that “this is not a case of an honest disagreement between lawyers. Rather, there is strong objective evidence that politics prevailed over the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.” The civil rights division of the DOJ is required under the VRA to “pre-clear,” or approve, any redistricting plan that might result in the unwarranted dilution of minority voting strength in particular districts. Texas, as a state with a history of discriminating against its minority citizens, is one of a number of states required to obtain DOJ approval for new redistricting plans. The DOJ has examined some 435,000 election changes since 1965, Posner writes, and thusly must “follow procedures which… ensure that preclearance decisions are based on the law and the facts, and not on extraneous factors. Among other things, these procedures must guard against the temptation that some political appointees can have to decide matters based on what would benefit their political party.” The DOJ career staff play a key role in such procedures, though the assistant attorney general (AAG) for civil rights makes the final decision. Until the Texas redistricting plan, Posner writes, AAGs have generally relied on the opinions and findings of their staff to help them craft a final decision. “When the career staff unanimously recommends that preclearance be denied, the AAG almost never overrides that recommendation and approves the change. On the flip side, the staff’s unanimous preclearance recommendation always results in the change being approved.” But the Texas redistricting approval upended the usual procedure. Despite the unanimous recommendation from the staff that the DOJ block Texas from implementing the plan due to its discriminatory effect, the AAG granted approval to the plan. “The influence of politics is evident,” Posner concludes. The DOJ “significantly and substantially deviated from the decisional practice which, for nearly four decades, has served the department well in enforcing Section 5 in a fair and nonpartisan manner.… [T]he evidence points to a single conclusion: the Justice Department did not serve the interests of minority citizens in this case, but, instead, served the political interests of the Republican Party.” (Posner 12/6/2005)
The Washington Post learns that the Justice Department has barred staff attorneys from offering recommendations in major Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965) cases, a drastic change from the earlier policy, which was designed to insulate such decision from political considerations. The decision comes amid what the Post calls “growing public criticism of Justice Department decisions to approve Republican-engineered plans in Texas (see December 12, 2003, December 2, 2005, and December 5, 2005) and Georgia (see 2005, November 25, 2005, and September 19, 2006) that were found to hurt minority voters by career staff attorneys who analyzed the plans. Political appointees overruled staff findings in both cases.” In the Georgia redistricting case, a staff memo advised rejecting the Georgia plan because it required voters to show photo ID at the polls, a policy that the memo said would disenfranchise some African-American voters. Under the new policy, that recommendation was removed from the memo and was not forwarded to higher officials in the civil rights division (CRD). The DOJ has claimed the August 25 memo was “an early draft,” even though the DOJ gave “preclearance” for the Georgia plan to be adopted on August 26. A federal judge blocked the law’s implementation, calling it a return to Jim Crow-era policies. The policy was adopted by John Tanner, the head of the CRD’s voting rights section (VRS). DOJ spokesperson Eric Holland says, “The opinions and expertise of the career lawyers are valued and respected and continue to be an integral part of the internal deliberation process upon which the department heavily relies when making litigation decisions.” Tanner has recently lambasted the quality of work by the VRS staff, some of whom have been in the section for decades. Some of the staff members boycotted the staff Christmas party because they were too angry to attend, sources within the section say. Experts like Jon Greenbaum, a VRS veteran who now directs the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says that stopping staff members from making such recommendations is a significant departure and runs the risk of making the process appear more political. “It’s an attempt by the political hierarchy to insulate themselves from any accountability by essentially leaving it up to a chief, who’s there at their whim,” he says. “To me, it shows a fear of dealing with the legal issues in these cases.” Congressional Democrats are critical of the new policy and are joined by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA), who is considering holding hearings on the Texas redistricting case. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) says, “America deserves better than a civil rights division that puts the political agenda of those in power over the interests of the people its serves.” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other DOJ officials have disagreed with the criticism, and asserted that politics play no role in civil rights decisions. Assistant Attorney General William Moschella has recently written to Specter, criticizing the Post’s coverage and claiming that the department is aggressively enforcing a range of civil rights laws. “From fair housing opportunities, equal access to the ballot box, and criminal civil rights prosecutions to desegregation in America’s schools and protection of the rights of the disabled, the division continues its noble mission with vigor,” he wrote. (Eggen 12/10/2005)
A Christian group sues a public library for preventing religious organizations from using its facilities to hold worship services. The library says it is following the constitutional separation of church and state. The Justice Department’s civil rights division (CRD) files a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the Christian group, claiming that the library violated its civil rights. The brief is written by a 2004 political hire to the CRD, a former clerk for conservative Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (see October 31, 2005 - February 1, 2006) while he was an appeals court judge and a member of two groups that advocate integrating Catholic religious practices into law and society (see Fall 2002 and After). (Savage 2007, pp. 298)
The Justice Department’s civil rights division threatens to sue Southern Illinois University over its paid fellowships for women and minorities on the ground that the program discriminates against white males. The university discontinues the fellowships. The case was developed by a 2004 political hire of the division who belongs to the conservative Federalist Society and had previously worked for the Center for Individual Rights, an organization that opposes affirmative action programs (see Fall 2002 and After). (Savage 2007, pp. 297)
Congress’s new Democratic leadership decides to investigate the Bush administration’s politicization of the Justice Department’s civil rights division (CRD—see Fall 2002 and After). The investigation is part of a parallel investigation into the firing of nine US attorneys for allegedly political reasons. One of the first replacement US attorneys, Bradley Schlozman, had spent three years as one of the CRD’s political hires most responsible for hiring conservative ideologues to replace CRD career lawyers. The complaints also dovetail with a report that another key figure in the US attorney firing, the Justice Department’s White House liaison Monica Goodling, was being investigated for using partisan political affiliations as part of her decisions to hire career assistant prosecutors, a practice forbidden by federal law. Goodling will later admit to having “crossed the line” by using political litmus tests in her career hiring decisions. Scholzman will admit to having bragged about hiring only Republicans at the Justice Department, but will deny asking any job applicants about their political views or partisan affiliations. (Savage 2007, pp. 299)
Facing a Congressional investigation into the practice of hiring conservative ideologues for the Justice Department’s civil rights division (CRD—see Fall 2002 and After and Spring 2007), the Department reverses its 2002 decision to give political appointees the power to decide who will be hired as career CRD lawyers. Such hiring now reverts to a committee of career civil servants, as has been the case for decades. Skeptics say that the reversal means little, as the career ranks are now packed with inexperienced conservative ideologues instead of the traditional veteran, highly experienced career lawyers. William Yeomans, a 24-year CRD veteran who accepted a 2005 buyout, says the Bush administration attempted to go farther than previous conservative administrations such as Nixon and Reagan. To make changes permanent, Yeomans notes, one has to entirely reshape the CRD bureaucracy. “Reagan had tried to bring about big changes in civil rights enforcement and to pursue a much more conservative approach, but it didn’t stick,” Yeomans says. “That was the goal here—to leave behind a bureaucracy that approached civil rights the same way the political appointees did.” (Savage 2007, pp. 300)
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