Commentary Magazine


Packing the Justice Department

The Washington Post‘s editors got my hopes up with an op-ed entitled “Repair Job at Justice.” Wow, would they talk about the dismissal of the Black Panther voter-intimidation case? Might they query why Eric Holder has second-guessed the investigation and decision by career prosecutors not to pursue charges against CIA operatives utilizing enhanced interrogation techniques? Could they discuss Holder’s decision to hire a head of the tax divison with no tax experience, or a bevy of hyperpartisan lawyers like Dawn Johnsen?

Well, no.

But the Post editors are concerned that the announced decision to beef up the staff in the Civil Rights Division might lead to politicized hiring. They write:

Mr. Holder must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors. If it was wrong then to fill career slots only with “loyal Bushies,” it would be wrong now to reserve slots only for committed liberals seeking to make up for lost time.

And he should seize the moment to rethink goals and approaches, even if it means challenging liberal orthodoxy. Is housing discrimination, for example, still such a vast problem that only the concerted efforts of the Justice Department can remedy the harm? The answer may be “yes,” but we would hope that Mr. Holder and his civil rights team at least test these and other assumptions.

And there is every reason to suspect that Holder and his team are indeed determined to find “loyal Obami.” The New York Times story that revealed Holder’s hiring plans noted that they involve potential replacement of key section heads (which includes career attorneys) simply because they had served during the Bush administration:

Other changes from the Bush years may be harder to roll back. The division’s downgrading of the New Black Panther Party charges, which were filed in the final days of the Bush administration, has had rippling consequences. It apparently prompted Senate Republicans to put a hold on President Obama’s nominee to lead the division as assistant attorney general for civil rights, Thomas Perez.

The delay in Mr. Perez’s arrival, in turn, is stalling plans to review section managers installed by the Bush team, including several regarded with suspicion by civil rights advocacy groups. Under federal law, top-level career officials may not be transferred to other positions for the first 120 days after a new agency head is confirmed.

You see, the “civil rights advocacy groups” — that is New York Times‒speak for left-wing activists — now call the tune as to who will serve in the Justice Department. Imagine if the Bush administration had deferred to the Federalist Society or to pro-life groups as to which attorneys to replace. What if the Bush administration had replaced civil-rights attorneys simply because they had been hired by the Clinton team?

Holder’s Justice Department says it will have career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division do the hiring. But this is no guarantee of fairness or that conservatives won’t be discriminated against. Quite the contrary. The Times let on:

Some conservatives are skeptical that such a policy will keep politics out of hiring, however. Robert Driscoll, a division political appointee from 2001 to 2003, said career civil rights lawyers are “overwhelmingly left-leaning” and will favor liberals. “If you are the Obama administration and you allow the career staff to do all the hiring, you will get the same people you would probably get if you did it yourself,” he said. “In some ways, it’s a masterstroke by them.”

Well, the Post editors are right to be concerned. But not to worry –  hasn’t Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Pat Leahy always been concerned about the “politicization” of the Justice Department? I’m sure he’ll get right on the case.