Civil Rights Groups Warn Against Return To Bush-Era Politicization Of DOJ Hiring

Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes a statement on issues related to visas and travel, Monday, March 6, 2017, from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Susan Walsh/AP
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Civil rights groups are sounding the alarm after a letter sent last month by academics and officials known for pushing restrictive voting laws urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “not leave [hiring] decisions in the hands of career bureaucrats who are reliably opposed to President Trump’s agenda” and to instead turn over hiring authority to “the Assistant Attorney Generals in each component Division.”

In their own letter to Sessions, organizations that included the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign fired back that such an approach was reminiscent of “the improper and illegal hiring practices undertaken at the Department of Justice in the mid-2000s, including in the Civil Rights Division, where actual or perceived political affiliation was used to make hiring and other personnel decisions.”

“We remind you that making hiring decisions or taking – or failing to take – other personnel actions (such as the assignment of cases) based on actual or perceived political affiliation is a violation of the merits system protections contained in the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) and other federal law,” the letter from the civil rights groups said.

The back-and-forth harkens to the personnel scandals that rocked President George W. Bush’s Justice Department, and particularly the Voting Section of its Civil Rights Division. The Bush administration sought to expand the involvement of political appointees in the hiring of career staff while eroding the barriers between the political “front office” and the work of longtime officials. One appointee specifically, Bradley Schlozman — who served as deputy assistant attorney general and acting assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division — was found to have prioritized the hiring of career staff with conservative ties, even if they lacked the qualifications for the job, and used coded terms in hiring decisions like “solid” and “good American” to describe them. Meanwhile, he thwarted the hiring of attorneys he perceived as being liberal and sought to exclude career human resource employees from the hiring process.

The Obama administration put hiring back mainly under the scope of the career employees, and the Civil Rights Division saw a major uptick in career attorneys with previous experience working on civil rights cases at places like the ACLU. The conservatives now are calling for Sessions to put political appointees in charge of hiring, while the civil rights groups caution that such a move could bring the politicization of career staff.

The initial letter was sent to Sessions on March 28 and was signed by George W. Bush administration DOJ veterans like Hans von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams, as well as other far-right legal advocates. President Trump’s transition team adviser Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who has been sued multiple times over restrictive voting measures, was also a signatory on the March 28 letter.

The conservatives’ letter claimed that in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division under President Obama “[e]ntrenched federal bureaucrats jettisoned precepts like equal enforcement in favor of political and racialized dogmas with a zeal that risks litigation failure and invites court sanctions.”

“Perhaps one of the greatest myths pushed by the Obama DOJ’s apologists was the claim of being the driving force for voter protection. That administration’s record paints an entirely different picture,” the letter said. The conservatives argued that voter ID cases were “were needlessly brought” and that racial gerrymandering cases could “drag almost a decade” and waste “millions of taxpayer dollars” in order to “[pervert] voting laws to engineer political advantage.”

In asking for hiring authority to be turned over to the assistant attorneys general, they warned of an “ideological rot impacting the Civil Rights Division.” They also called for a “return to race-neutral Voting Rights Act enforcement” and “an end to politically-driven pursuits against state photo voter identification requirements, citizenship verification in voter registration, and common-sense adjustments to early voting periods.”

In response, the April 28 letter signed by nearly two dozen voting rights groups pushed back on those assessments and focused particularly on the idea of putting political appointees in charge of Civil Rights Division hiring, which the civiil rights groups worried could lead to career staff personnel decisions “based on political affiliation or for political purposes.”

“The Justice Department’s own regulations similarly prohibit such discrimination,” the letter said. “These civil service laws were enacted to strengthen and preserve the accountability of our democratic government by replacing a system of political patronage with one where government officials were selected based on merit to serve all Americans.”

It reminded Sessions of a 2008 DOJ Inspector General Report that found during the Bush administration, a high-ranking political appointee “considered political and ideological affiliations in hiring career attorneys and in other personnel actions affecting career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division,” and thereby “violated federal law … and Department policy that prohibit discrimination in federal employment based on political and ideological affiliations, and committed misconduct,” quoting directly from the 2008 report.

“[T]he Division’s career staff must not be politicized by the incoming Justice Department political appointees, as suggested by the March 28th letter, and must be free to pursue the Division’s mission without inappropriate political interference,” the civil rights groups said. “If personnel decisions are made based on political affiliation or for political purposes, it would undermine the Division’s ability to carry out its important mission and the nation’s confidence in the even-handed application of the laws.”

Read the April 11 letter here and the March 28 letter below:

Letter to AG Sessions on Civil Rights Division by Public Interest Legal Foundation on Scribd

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tierney Sneed is a reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked for U.S. News and World Report. She grew up in Florida and attended Georgetown University.
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