Charlie Savage has this standout piece is today’s New York Times on the state of the Civil Rights Division and Attorney General Eric Holder’s intention, in his own words, to return to its ”historical mission.”
The shift will mean “a major revival of high-impact civil rights enforcement against policies, in areas ranging from housing to hiring, where statistics show that minorities fare disproportionately poorly,” Savage writes.
The Bush administration strayed from the traditional focus on racial discrimination, focusing instead on areas such as religious discrimination and human trafficking. The Obama administration’s plan is to continue enforcement in those areas as well. The White House has requested funding for 50 more lawyers — enough to do everything.
The House report to the Justice Department’s fiscal year 2010 funding bill includes funds to bring on an additional 51 full-time employees in the Civil Rights Division.
The Justice Department has requested a 2010 budget increase of $15.7 million for the division, an 18 percent increase from the 2009 budget. The House and Senate reports have $145.5 million set aside for the section.
The report from the House Appropriations Committee said:
“The Committee is particularly supportive of the additional resources proposed in past years. The Committee is particularly supportive of the additional resources proposed for the Civil Rights Division to restore its base capacity to enforce civil rights laws; expand its capacity to prosecute and provide litigation support for human trafficking and unsolved civil rights era crimes; carry out its responsibilities associated with the civil rights of institutionalized persons and the access rights of the disabled; and enhance the enforcement of fair housing and fair lending laws.”
The division is also working on a new hiring policy, according to Savage. Panels of career employees, rather than political appointees, would make hiring decisions.
But former Bush administration officials noted that career civil rights lawyers are overwhelmingly left-leaning, so the panels would likely reach the same conclusions as political appointees in the Obama administration.
“In some ways, it’s a masterstroke by them,” Alston & Bird partner Robert Driscoll, a division political appointee from 2001 to 2003, told the Times.
But recharging the division could prove tricky following an era of politicized hiring, orchestrated in large part by Bradley Schlozman, who was a deputy and acting head of the division during the Bush administration. The department’s watchdogs found that Schlozman violated federal law in his quest to stock the division with “right-thinking Americans.”
During his tenure, Schlozman hired 99 lawyers. According to a joint report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility, 63 of them were Republicans, two of them were Democrats, and 34 were labeled as “unknown.”
Schlozman’s effect on morale was apparent. The Obama transition team’s confidential report on the division, obtained by Savage, shows that 236 civil rights lawyers left from 2003 to 2007. The division has about 350 lawyers.
According to Savage:
Many of their replacements had scant civil rights experience and were graduates of lower-ranked law schools. The transition report says the era of hiring such “inexperienced or poorly qualified” lawyers — who are now themselves protected by civil service laws — has left lasting damage.
“While some of the political hires have performed competently and a number of others have left, the net effect of the politicized hiring process and the brain drain is an attorney work force largely ill-equipped to handle the complex, big-impact litigation that should comprise a significant part” of the division’s docket, the transition report said.
Republicans have volleyed charges of politicization back at Holder’s Justice Department. In particular, DOJ’s decision to downgrade a voter-intimidation lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party (read our previous coverage of the case here and here) stirred House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to urge Senate Republicans to put a hold on Civil Rights Division nominee Thomas Perez until DOJ gives Congress more information about the case. And according to Savage, they have.
The delay is holding up reviews of section managers ”installed by the Bush team, including several regarded with suspicion by civil rights advocacy groups,” according to Savage. Top-level career officials may not be transferred to other posts until 120 days after a new agency head is confirmed.
According to the Office of Personnel Management’s “Guide to the Senior Executive Service“:
Career appointees cannot be reassigned involuntarily within 120 days of the appointment of a new agency head, or the appointment of the career appointee’s most immediate supervisor who is a noncareer appointee with the authority to make an initial appraisal of the career appointee’s performance. The intent of this moratorium is to provide a “get acquainted” period to allow the new agency head and noncareer appointees to get to know the career senior executives and their skills and expertise. However, after 120 days, agency managers are free to reassign their career appointees.
Andrew Ramonas contributed to this report.