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If there's one good thing that's come out of the U.S. attorneys scandal, it's that it's shining a bright light on the Justice Department. And as a result, it's become clear that the most grossly politicized section of the department is the Civil Rights Division.

The reason is plain. As we've seen, many Republicans, and Karl Rove in particular, are obsessed with "voter fraud" -- the idea that minorities in Democratic strongholds are taking advantage of lax record systems to stuff the ballot. There's evidence that at least two of the fired U.S. attorneys were let go because they did not pursue such prosecutions. But the obsession is nothing new; it's one of the defining preoccupations of the Bush administration. The hysterical claims have led Republicans to push voter I.D. laws in several swing states -- efforts that have been backed by the White House.

It is the job of the Civil Rights Division to watchdog the voting rights of minorities. And due to the Voting Rights Act, several states cannot even enact such laws without first getting clearance from the division. So to make sure that no career staffers get in the way -- with evidence, for instance, that a voter I.D. law would disproportionately impact African Americans -- the Civil Rights Division has been gutted.

But, as McClatchy reported in detail late last week, the strategy goes beyond voter fraud. The division has made an effort to purge voter rolls while minimizing actions or programs that help register poor or minority voters, and McClatchy gave a nice rundown of the lowlights. Political appointees in the Civil Rights Division have:

-Issued advisory opinions that overstated a 2002 federal election law by asserting that it required states to disqualify new voting registrants if their identification didn't match that in computer databases, prompting at least three states to reject tens of thousands of applicants mistakenly.

-Done little to enforce a provision of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act that requires state public assistance agencies to register voters. The inaction has contributed to a 50 percent decline in annual registrations at those agencies, to 1 million from 2 million.

-Sued at least six states on grounds that they had too many people on their voter rolls. Some eligible voters were removed in the resulting purges.


The whole thing is worth a read, especially as a companion piece to The New York Times' excellent piece earlier this month on voter fraud.

So that's the big picture. As more comes out (and more will), keep that in mind.

Call it a sign of the times.

Here's a moment from this morning's White House press gaggle, after Dana Perino fielded questions about Alberto Gonzales and Paul Wolfowitz:

Q Does the President ever get tired of having to express his full confidence in the people around him these days?

MS. PERINO: When you're President of the United States and you have this many folks that you are employing, it's a pretty small number that he's had to express full confidence in. All of us who serve at the pleasure of the President, if the moment he doesn't have full confidence in you, you no longer work for him. And we all take that very seriously.


"Pretty small number." You gotta love it.

Note: As a bonus, I've included Perino's rambling endorsement of Gonzales below the fold (preview: "He is our number one crime fighter.").

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Earlier this month, a federal appeals court slapped down a prosecution against a Wisconsin state bureaucrat brought by U.S. Attorney for Milwaukee Steve Biskupic. The court took the extraordinary step of reversing the conviction and freeing the bureaucrat, named Georgia Thompson, due to the simple lack of a crime. That's led to a lot of questions about whether the case, which implicated the state's Democratic governor in an election year, was brought due to political pressure.

Today, the court released (pdf) its written opinion on the case. And it wasn't any more sparing than the verbal remarks (e.g. that the evidence was "beyond thin") of the judges when they made the ruling.

The prosecution was based on a reading of the law by which "simple violations of administrative rules [by bureaucrats] would become crimes," the judges wrote. By that interpretation, "it is a federal crime for any official in state or local government to take account of political considerations when deciding how to spend public money" -- a "preposterous" idea, they wrote.

Ultimately, the prosecution drew on "the open-ended quality" of the law to charge that a crime had occurred. And the blame, the judges wrote, might very well lie with the open-ended quality of the statutes used to charge Thompson:

"This prosecution, which led to the conviction and imprisonment of a civil servant for conduct that, as far as this record shows, was designed to pursue the public interest as the employee understood it, may well induce Congress to take another look at the wisdom of enacting [such vague statutes]."
The laws, they wrote, make it "possible for prosecutors to believe, and public employees to deny, that a crime has occurred, and for both sides to act in good faith...." In other words, the judges are saying that any reasonable person would have looked at this case and seen that nothing amiss had occurred -- but it was nevertheless legally possible to bring a prosecution. For that, you could blame the law... but you could also question the prosecutor's judgment.

For his part, Biskupic has said that he brought the case "in consultation with the then-Democratic State Attorney General, and the Democratic District Attorney for Dane County" and that the decision to charge Thompson was "based solely on the facts."

The House Judiciary Committee has invited Biskupic to tell his story to Congress.

Update: TPM Reader LA writes:

You might want to note in the Thompson story that the opinion was written by Frank Easterbrook, a law-and-economics-oriented Reagan appointee, and stone genius. When I saw the "preposterous" quote, I figured he had to have written the decision, and I am so glad to be right.

CNN is reporting that Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL), the Chairman of the Republican Conference and the number three in the House Republican leadership, has said that Gonzales should resign.

CNN quotes him as saying that "[Gonzales] did not distinguish himself in the hearing... there remains a cloud over the Department... I think they would be well served by fresh leadership."

It's time for an update.

Since our last rundown of Republicans who want Gonzales gone, a number of others have made outright calls for his resignation. Still more have stopped just short, though they've made it clear that they hope Gonzales will do everyone a favor and resign.

Gonzales' sole enthusiastic supporters, by our count, are Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and the White House.

The list:

: For an updated version of this list, click here.

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I think that's what you call a tepid endorsement.

With the exception of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has been Alberto Gonzales' most vocal supporter on the Senate Judiciary Committee. And he still supports Gonzales, even after yesterday's display.

But his logic for that support has turned nakedly political, with not even a nod to Gonzales' effectiveness as attorney general. During an interview on CNN earlier today, when asked whether Gonzales should stay on, Cornyn replied:

I think he should, because frankly I don’t think the Democrats will be satisfied by the resignation of Al Gonzales. This is, at its base, a political fishing expedition, and they’re not going to be satisfied with just Al Gonzales.


There are two different ways to see yesterday's hearing:

1) It was a bloodbath. Four different Republican senators on the judiciary committee severely criticized Gonzales, and one Republican senator even told Alberto Gonzales, right to his face, that he should resign.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said "Your ability to lead the Department of Justice is in question. I wish that were not so, but I think it certainly is." Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), seeming almost dismissive of Gonzales, said "Sometimes, it just came down to these were not the right people at the right time. If I applied that standard to you, what would you say?" Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) made it clear that he thought Gonzales should resign, but stopped just short of calling for his resignation. And Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), of course, didn't stop short. That's four of the nine Republicans on the panel.

2) Only one Republican senator told Gonzales that he should resign.

Can you guess which one represents the Gonzales worldview? From The Washington Post:

A Justice Department official said last night that Gonzales's aides consider the lone Republican call for his resignation yesterday a "positive barometer."

"While we realize Senate Republicans are not happy, they are willing to stick with the attorney general," said the official, who spoke about members of Congress on the condition of anonymity.


The panel is half full, you could say.

A press release from the White House:

President Bush was pleased with the Attorney General's testimony today. After hours of testimony in which he answered all of the Senators' questions and provided thousands of pages of documents, he again showed that nothing improper occurred. He admitted the matter could have been handled much better, and he apologized for the disruption to the lives of the U.S. Attorneys involved, as well as for the lack of clarity in his initial responses.

The Attorney General has the full confidence of the President, and he appreciates the work he is doing at the Department of Justice to help keep our citizens safe from terrorists, our children safe from predators, our government safe from corruption, and our streets free from gang violence.


And I'm sure Gonzales appreciates the work Bush is doing to keep him safe from unemployment.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) stopped just short of calling for Alberto Gonzales' resignation, saying that "it's for two people to decide": Gonzales and the president.

But that didn't sound like where he was going in his comments. He said there'd been a "loss of credibility" at the department, that "we haven't really gotten answers" from Gonzales. He added that there was unquestionably a morale problem at the department and that the message had been sent that U.S. attorneys around the country "ought to be on guard... for you to have said that this was 'an overblown personnel matter,' that can't be erased."

But he said, "I'm not going to call for your resignation," saying that it's "beyond my purview.... For myself, I want to leave it to you and the president."

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