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.
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.
Goodling has acknowledged in sworn congressional testimony that she improperly took political considerations into account in hiring, but said this occurred in only a small number of cases.
Gonzales appeared unaware of the political nature of the hiring process in his department, according to investigators. In a statement Tuesday he said political considerations "should play no part in the hiring of career officials at the Department of Justice."
Of course, on one level political considerations are a main driver of hiring decisions in Washington. Presidents generally hire Cabinet secretaries and White House staff from their own party. The post of attorney general is political.
Under these top jobs, a small number of senior aides are also political hires. These allow chief executives to attempt to implement their policies and steer large bureaucratic government organizations.
But the vast majority of government workers serve in civil service posts where hiring is intended to be exempt from political influence. This prevents a wholesale disruption of government services when administrations change and is intended to guard against graft and cronyism.
With the Justice Department in particular, it is intended to help ensure that the scales of justice do not tip to left or right, politically speaking.
"When you're talking about the Justice Department, a group that's charged with upholding the law, it's particularly disturbing to hear allegations that they're violating the law," says Maureen O'Rourke, dean of Boston University School of Law.
Previous investigations have alleged that politics played a role in appointments to Justice honors and intern programs. The nearly simultaneous firing of eight US attorneys also remains a live issue. While these top regional jobs are political appointments, critics allege that the mass US attorney firing was driven by improperly political reasons, such as an attempt to sway particular prosecutions.
"Some worry that too much politics has crept into the professional, get-the-job-done level," says Ms. O'Rourke. "That's not a glamorous issue that would make it to the forefront of the election campaign, but I think it's an issue that the next president will have to deal with."
As to Justice, the question of who knew what remains relevant. Justice investigators concluded that the White House political affairs office recommended a majority of the immigration judge candidates that Goodling and Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Gonzales, considered hiring.
Then there is the issue of whether, and how, the improper hiring might be undone. "Can you purge the people hired improperly?" says Professor Tobias.
Current Attorney General Michael Mukasey said he was "of course disturbed" by the new report's allegations. He said he would make sure "that the conduct described in this report does not occur again at the department."