Sunday, July 23, 2006

Bush Administration Changing Justice's Civil Rights Division

Another excellent piece of investigative reporting by The Boston Globe's Charlie Savage! He reports on the results of an FOIA request to the Justice Department for records showing their hiring practices in 3 important sections of the Civil Rights division. See the full story at the link above. Here is a key snippet that also explains the story:

Beneath the political appointees, most of the work is carried out by a permanent staff of about 350 lawyers. They take complaints, investigate problems, propose lawsuits, litigate cases, and negotiate settlements.

Until recently, career attorneys also played an important role in deciding whom to hire when vacancies opened up in their ranks.

``We were looking for a strong academic record, for clerkships, and for evidence of an interest in civil rights enforcement," said William Yeomans , who worked for the division for 24 years, leaving in 2005.

Civil Rights Division supervisors of both parties almost always accepted the career attorneys' hiring recommendations, longtime staffers say. Charles Cooper , a former deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Reagan administration, said the system of hiring through committees of career professionals worked well.

``There was obviously oversight from the front office, but I don't remember a time when an individual went through that process and was not accepted," Cooper said. ``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."

But during the fall 2002 hiring cycle, the Bush administration changed the rules. Longtime career attorneys say there was never an official announcement. The hiring committee simply was not convened, and eventually its members learned that it had been disbanded.

Driscoll, the former Bush administration appointee, said then-Attorney General John Ashcroft changed hiring rules for the entire Justice Department, not just the Civil Rights Division. But career officials say that the change had a particularly strong impact in the Civil Rights Division, where the potential for political interference is greater than in divisions that enforce less controversial laws.

Joe Rich , who joined the division in 1968 and who was chief of the voting rights section until he left last year, said that the change reduced career attorneys' input on hiring decisions to virtually nothing. Once the political appointees screened resumes and decided on a finalist for a job in his section, Rich said, they would invite him to sit in on the applicant's final interview but they wouldn't tell him who else had applied, nor did they ask his opinion about whether to hire the attorney.

The changes extended to the hiring of summer interns.

If you care about protecting minority group's civil rights, apparently the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division is no longer a group to count on. The article details statistics about the most recent hires of long-term staff, morale problems among careerists and buy-out programs to lure them out. Savage also includes 3 snapshot cases considered or prosecuted by the division since 2002, when the changes began. Makes you want to take out a membership in ACLU or National Lawyer's Guild. Somebody has to tend to business!

The article notes that the hiring changes open the posts to students from midwest and southern schools whereas the previous policy pretty much limited hiring to elite eastern schools. I don't mind the geographic diversity, and probably applaud it. What is troubling is the profound changes in the decision-making that is being wrought. And these changes will be as long-lasting as W's appointments of federal judges. Yipes!

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