Washington — The scandal unfolding around the firing of eight US attorneys compels the conclusion that the Bush administration has rewarded loyalty over all else. A destructive pattern of partisan political actions at the Justice Department started long before this incident, however, as those of us who worked in its civil rights division can attest.
I spent more than 35 years in the department enforcing federal civil rights laws – particularly voting rights. Before leaving in 2005, I worked for attorneys general with dramatically different political philosophies – from John Mitchell to Ed Meese to Janet Reno. Regardless of the administration, the political appointees had respect for the experience and judgment of longtime civil servants.
Under the Bush administration, however, all that changed. During the past six years, this Justice Department has ignored the advice of its staff and skewed aspects of law enforcement in ways that clearly were intended to influence the outcome of elections.
It has notably shirked its legal responsibility to protect voting rights. From 2001 to 2006, no voting discrimination cases were brought on behalf of black or native American voters. US attorneys were told instead to give priority to voter fraud cases, which, when coupled with the strong support for voter ID laws, indicated an intent to depress voter turnout in minority and poor communities.
At least two of the recently fired US attorneys, John McKay in Seattle and David Iglesias in New Mexico, were targeted largely because they refused to prosecute voting fraud cases that implicated Democrats or voters likely to vote for Democrats.
This pattern also extended to hiring. In March 2006, Bradley Schlozman was appointed interim US attorney in Kansas City, Mo. Two weeks earlier, the administration was granted the authority to make such indefinite appointments without Senate confirmation. That was too bad: A Senate hearing might have uncovered Mr. Schlozman's central role in politicizing the civil rights division during his three-year tenure.
Schlozman, for instance, was part of the team of political appointees that approved then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's plan to redraw congressional districts in Texas, which in 2004 increased the number of Republicans elected to the House. Similarly, Schlozman was acting assistant attorney general in charge of the division when the Justice Department approved a Georgia law requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls. These decisions went against the recommendations of career staff, who asserted that such rulings discriminated against minority voters. The warnings were prescient: Both proposals were struck down by federal courts.
Schlozman continued to influence elections as an interim US attorney. Missouri had one of the closest Senate races in the country last November, and a week before the election, Schlozman brought four voter fraud indictments against members of an organization representing poor and minority people. This blatantly contradicted the department's longstanding policy to wait until after an election to bring such indictments because a federal criminal investigation might affect the outcome of the vote. The timing of the Missouri indictments could not have made the administration's aims more transparent.
This administration is also politicizing the career staff of the Justice Department. Outright hostility to career employees who disagreed with the political appointees was evident early on.
Seven career managers were removed in the civil rights division. I personally was ordered to change performance evaluations of several attorneys under my supervision. I was told to include critical comments about those whose recommendations ran counter to the political will of the administration and to improve evaluations of those who were politically favored.
Morale plummeted, resulting in an alarming exodus of career attorneys. In the past two years, 55 to 60 percent of attorneys in the voting section have transferred to other departments or left the Justice Department entirely.
At the same time, career staff were nearly cut out of the process of hiring lawyers. Control of hiring went to political appointees, so an applicant's fidelity to GOP interests replaced civil rights experience as the most important factor in hiring decisions.
For decades prior to this administration, the Justice Department had successfully kept politics out of its law enforcement decisions. Hopefully, the spotlight on this misconduct will begin the process of restoring dignity and nonpartisanship to federal law enforcement.
As the 2008 elections approach, it is critical to have a Justice Department that approaches its responsibility to all eligible voters without favor.
• Joseph D. Rich was chief of the voting section in the Justice Department's civil rights division from 1999 to 2005. He now works for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. ©2007 Los Angeles Times Syndicate.