Putting the Right in Civil Rights

Charlie Savage, the excellent Boston Globe reporter who broke the story of President Bush's governing-by-presidential-signing-statement trick, brings us more disturbing news.

The Bush administration is quietly remaking the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, filling the permanent ranks with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights, according to job application materials obtained by the Globe.

The documents show that only 42 percent of the lawyers hired since 2003, after the administration changed the rules to give political appointees more influence in the hiring process, have civil rights experience. In the two years before the change, 77 percent of those who were hired had civil rights backgrounds.

In an acknowledgment of the department's special need to be politically neutral, hiring for career jobs in the Civil Rights Division under all recent administrations, Democratic and Republican, had been handled by civil servants -- not political appointees.

But in the fall of 2002, then-attorney general John Ashcroft changed the procedures. The Civil Rights Division disbanded the hiring committees made up of veteran career lawyers.

For decades, such committees had screened thousands of resumes, interviewed candidates, and made recommendations that were only rarely rejected.

Now, hiring is closely overseen by Bush administration political appointees to Justice, effectively turning hundreds of career jobs into politically appointed positions.

This new hiring policy of hiring those loyal to the Right's vision rather than those more qualified but ideologically unreliable extends all the way down to the summer intern level.

Danielle Leonard , who was one of the last lawyers to be hired into the voting rights section under the old system, said she volunteered to look through internship applications in 2002.

Leonard said she went through the resumes, putting Post-It Notes on them with comments, until her supervisor told her that career staff would no longer be allowed to review the intern resumes. Leonard removed her Post-Its from the resumes and a political aide took them away.

The Bush administration has also made special efforts to make room for its new conservative affirmative action hires, not only by beating the career staff with various sticks and depressing morale, but also with carrots.

Last year, the administration offered longtime civil rights attorneys a buyout. Department figures show that 63 division attorneys left in 2005 -- nearly twice the average annual number of departures since the late 1990s.

At a recent NAACP hearing on the state of the Civil Rights Division, David Becker , who was a voting-rights section attorney for seven years before accepting the buyout offer, warned that the personnel changes threatened to permanently damage the nation's most important civil rights watchdog.

"Even during other administrations that were perceived as being hostile to civil rights enforcement, career staff did not leave in numbers approaching this level," Becker said.

"In the place of these experienced litigators and investigators, this administration has, all too often, hired inexperienced ideologues, virtually none of which have any civil rights or voting rights experiences."

Like Iraq, climate change, and so many other things, this is just one more toxic legacy we'll have to contend with, long after Bush is gone.


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