Conservative Media Angry That DOJ's Civil Rights Division Is Hiring Civil Rights Attorneys

Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

In the last two years of the Bush administration, the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division was engulfed by allegations that political appointees had illegally and inappropriately hired career attorneys because they were conservatives or Republicans, culminating with a blistering report from DOJ's Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility savaging the activity as a "violat[ion] of federal law." Ever since, the right-wing media has been desperately trying to prove that the Obama DOJ is just as unethically partisan as was the Bush DOJ.

In the latest salvo, the conservative Pajamas Media -- media home of New Black Panther Party fabulist J. Christian Adams, who was hired during the period of illegal hiring -- has published the first of what it promises will be many attacks on the division's hiring, based on a Freedom of Information Act request for the resumes of new hires.

According to Pajamas Media, the resumes "reveal a rogue's gallery of militant civil rights lawyers" with "so many aggressive attorneys who previously worked at the ACLU, NAACP, Legal Aid, or at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights that it is a wonder these organizations have anyone left on their staffs."

In other words, Pajamas Media is angry that the Civil Rights Division has hired so many attorneys who actually have experience and interest in civil rights law. This argument makes about as much sense as complaining that the DOJ's Tax Division is hiring too many tax lawyers; these are specialized areas of law, so prior experience is crucial.

Pajamas Media goes on to claim that "the Obama administration appears to have engaged in packing the Department with partisans -- and that it is worse than anything the Bush administration was alleged to have done." Either Pajamas Media has no idea what the Bush administration was actually doing (unlikely since they employ one of its beneficiaries) or they're willing to ignore it to push their attacks.

First of all, the Pajamas Media argument seems to be based on the idea that the problem with what the Bush administration was doing was that they were hiring a lot of conservative attorneys, and thus the Obama administration did the same thing by hiring lots of liberal attorneys. This doesn't even scratch the surface of what the Bush administration did.

In fact, according to the IG/OPR report, beginning in 2002, the Bush administration defied decades of precedent by allowing political appointees to make hiring decisions. Under that policy, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bradley Schlozman "considered political and ideological affiliations in hiring career attorneys" and thus "violated federal law -- the Civil Service Reform Act -- and Department policy that prohibit discrimination in federal employment based on political and ideological affiliations."

In other words, the Bush administration didn't just happen to hire a lot of conservative attorneys -- a Bush political appointee was engaged in a years-long and deliberate effort to stack the Civil Rights Division with conservative lawyers, in violation of federal law and Department policy.

It's worth reviewing the report to see just how blatant this effort was -- Schlozman left a long email trail of obvious evidence that he was improperly considering partisanship. Among a long list of other examples, Schlozman literally got a recommendation to hire a new career attorney and responded only, "conservative?" In congressional testimony, he admitted to boasting about hiring conservatives and Republicans in the division. He referred to "making progress" by hiring "ideological comrade[s]."

Schlozman also made clear that he was discriminating against liberals. He sent emails discussing a forthcoming interview "with some lefty who we'll never hire" and mocking recommendations from other career attorneys by saying that "as long as I'm here, adherents of Mao's little red book need not apply."

In a voice mail message to a subordinate, Schlozman explained why he didn't think civil rights experience was necessarily a plus for potential interns for the division:

[W]hen we start asking about, "what is your commitment to civil rights?" . . . . [H]ow do you prove that? Usually by membership in some crazy liberal organization or by some participation in some crazy cause. . . . Look, look at my résumé - I didn't have any demonstrated commitment, but I care about the issues. So, I mean, I just want to make sure we don't start confining ourselves to, you know, politburo members because they happen to be a member of some, you know, psychopathic left-wing organization designed to overthrow the government

The report does not detail whether Schlozman concluded the message by twirling his moustache.

Needless to say, Pajamas Media has nothing remotely resembling this extensive documentation of a concerted effort to discriminate based on partisanship. Instead, all they have is that the "Obama administration" hired a lot of civil rights attorneys for the Civil Rights Division.

This argument would make at least some sense if anyone from the Obama administration were actually involved in the hiring process. But while the Bush administration allowed political appointees to handle the hiring of career attorneys, National Law Journal points out:

The division has switched back to a process for hiring nonentry-level lawyers that dates to the 1980s, one that creates a buffer between applicants and political appointees. A committee of at least three section lawyers conducts interviews, in contrast to the Bush-era practice of some political appointees doing so, and the career section chief makes a recommendation. [assistant attorney general for civil rights Tom] Perez, like his predecessors, has the final say on hiring decisions.

According to The New York Times, "Under the policy, if an assistant attorney general for civil rights wants to overrule a recommendation, he must do so in writing. Mr. Perez has not overruled any recommendations."

So what Pajamas Media actually has is career civil rights attorneys preferring to hire people with experience in civil rights law to work in the Civil Rights Division, rather than people without such experience. (As the Times points out in an article about applicants to three of the Civil Rights Division's sections, "about 90 percent of the Obama-era hires listed civil rights backgrounds on their résumés, up from about 38 percent of the Bush group hires.")

That's not much of a scandal, but no doubt the right-wing media will spend as much time trying to blow it up as they did the New Black Panthers non-story.

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