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09.02.09

Civil Wrongs

Attorney General Eric Holder committed this week to repairing the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, one of the most scandal-plagued institutions in the Bush administration. But advocates and alumni warn that the damage runs far too deep to repair quickly, The Daily Beast's Benjamin Sarlin reports.

The scandals at the CIA, FEMA, and the Pentagon may have drawn bigger headlines, but the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division suffered as much damage under President George W. Bush’s watch as any federal institution. Its leaders put the brakes on the office’s traditional enforcement priorities, while their henchmen stocked the traditionally apolitical ranks of career lawyers with ideologues, many of whom were hired explicitly because they lacked civil-rights experience. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday his intent to jump-start the office—a crucial engine of the civil-rights movement. But advocates and alumni say the job of repairing the damage may prove far harder than it might seem.

   The Civil Rights Division’s acting head derided the average civil-rights group as a “psychopathic left-wing organization designed to overthrow the government.”     

“Eric Holder has a big job in trying to restore some sanity to the approach the division takes,” said Mary Frances Berry, the former chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. She estimated it may take at least two years to clear out dead weight from the department and make the staff functional once more. Holder alluded to the difficulty in cutting through the bureaucracy himself, telling The New York Times that “the wounds that were inflicted on this division were deep, and it will take some time for them to fully heal.”

Creating the “wounds”: a change in hiring practices under Bush that gave political appointees broad latitude to hire like-minded employees to career positions. Under Bradley Schlozman, who served as acting head of the division before resigning under pressure in 2007, the office made personnel choices based more on conservative credentials than the lawyers’ relevant civil-rights experience. A report released in January by the Justice Department’s inspector general slammed the agency’s new hiring practices, concluding that Schlozman had made false statements to Congress to cover them up. The IG’s report turned up emails in which he referred to rejected employees as “some lefty who we'll never hire” and “commies” while deriding the average civil-rights group as a “psychopathic left-wing organization designed to overthrow the government.” 

Capitol Hill looked the other way; the Republican majorities in both the House and Senate from 2003 to 2007 did not make oversight of the department a top priority. The result was a glut of inexperienced, ideological hires and a chilling effect on experienced employees, many of whom quit in response to the changes. The division, created to enforce anti-discrimination laws, also developed a diversity problem. Between 2003 to 2007, the agency didn't hire a single black attorney to replace those who left, leaving its criminal section, which employed 50 lawyers, with only two African Americans. The voting section filed only one case on behalf of a black voter from 2001 to 2006—and that was a holdover from the previous administration.

John Tanner was head of the voting-rights section until 2007, when he resigned following a host of dustups. Among the most memorable: He defended a Georgia law requiring voters to show photo IDs on the bizarre basis that "minorities don't become elderly the way white people do: they die first." He later was discovered to have written emails about how he liked his coffee "Mary Frances Berry style—black and bitter.”

One employee who fled was William Yeomans, who held a variety of positions over a 24-year career in the Civil Rights Division and served as acting assistant attorney general during the Bush transition before departing in 2005. He described the politicized hiring policy as “devastating” to the agency's ability to function. “The personnel changes were enormous: Large numbers of seasoned, experienced lawyers left and took their expertise with them,” Yeomans, now a fellow at Washington College of Law, told The Daily Beast. “In order to get the division started again in some fairly complex areas of civil-rights enforcement, they're going to have to rebuild the expertise. And it will take time to do.”

After all, the new Bush hires can’t just be kicked to the curb. Because they are career employees of the federal bureaucracy, they enjoy job protections not afforded political appointees. “It's been well documented in the public record that most of them were not even qualified to have their jobs,” Berry said, “and these folks 'burrowed in,' as they call it, which simply means finding a way to stay there when the administration changes by becoming a civil servant. The folks who are burrowed in are going to try and impede whatever [Holder] does behind the scenes.”

Of course, Holder’s new hires could help dilute the influence of the Bush-era appointees—and might even drive some toward the door. But the legal market in Washington has been hard-hit during the economic downturn, leaving job-hunters with fewer options than they might normally have. And the longer it takes for current employees to leave the building, the fewer slots Holder will have to fill, at least in the careerist ranks.

Jon Greenbaum, who left the Civil Rights Division in 2003 and is now the legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, suggests that the Justice Department should push to get the most out of the Bush hires as long as they’re there.

“It's not monolithic. Some of the people that may have originally been brought in for political reasons may well be doing good work,” Greenbaum said. “For some of them, either because of their views or because of their level of skill, it's going to be more of a challenge to get the productivity you want.”

Nonetheless, he added that moving things forward can be difficult in any federal institution.

“One of the challenges the Civil Rights Division always has regardless of whose in office is that it's a bureaucracy and things don't necessarily happen fast. You need to find ways to streamline it so it's not bogging things down,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to carrying out Holder’s new mandate is the fact that the division remains leaderless, nine months into the new administration. Tom Perez, Obama’s pick to Civil Rights, has watched his nomination languish on Capitol Hill; Republicans, unhappy over a department decision to drop an investigation of New Black Panther Party members alleged to have engaged in voter intimidation, are holding up his confirmation.

“It's a shame that Tom Perez is being held up because they need leadership there to help rebuild the Civil Rights Division,” said former voting-section chief Joe Rich, who left in 2005 and has since become a persistent critic of the department. “It's hard without a leader obviously, and until he's in there they can't really move forward as vigorously as they intend to.”

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.