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Politics in U.S. hiring: When is it improper?

By Peter Grier and Uri Friedman / July 30, 2008

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., left, talks with Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, right, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 30, 2008, prior to the start of the committee's hearing on Politicized Hiring at the Justice Department.

Susan Walsh/AP


Washington and Boston - Politics plays a part in hiring decisions throughout Washington. But by law, internal rules, and tradition, the selection of career officials at the Justice Department is supposed to be blind to matters of party.

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That's because the application of federal justice is intended to be nonpartisan. Citizens have a right to expect equal treatment under the law, without regard to their political beliefs, registration, or yard signs.

Thus, by letting politics dictate the appointment of career prosecutors, immigration officials, and other government lawyers, senior aides to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may have crossed a red line, say some legal experts. And if the details in a just-released internal report are true, these aides crossed that line by a lot.

"Both Democratic and Republican administrations in the past have operated with the understanding that the Department of Justice in its career hiring process should not be politicized," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, in Virginia.

This issue will be in the congressional spotlight Wednesday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing focusing on the new report, produced jointly by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General and its Office of Professional Responsibility.

According to the report, released July 28, for nearly two years top advisers to then-Attorney General Gonzales discriminated against applicants for jobs who weren't Republican or conservative.

Monica Goodling, at the time the Justice Department's liaison to the White House, asked at least some applicants questions such as, "What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?" says the report.

In researching the background of applicants for career prosecutor jobs, top Justice aides used Internet searches on such keywords as "Bush," "Gore," "Democrat," "spotted owl," "abortion," "gun," and "Florida recount," according to the report.

Ms. Goodling objected to hiring at least one prosecutor because she felt he was a Democrat, the report alleges. Others allegedly were hired because they were "solid Americans" on the GOP's core issues.