The Center for Grassroots Oversight

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Profile: David Becker

David Becker was a participant or observer in the following events:

Civil rights division logo.Civil rights division logo. [Source: US Department of Justice]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)


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