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Unearthing Civil Rights Erosion

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The Senate Judiciary Committee will meet today to hold an oversight hearing on the Department of Justice’s civil rights division. This full committee hearing gives an important opportunity to provide oversight to plethora of confirmed and alleged instances of ethical and legal violations of long-standing civil rights laws.

The committee will question Wan Kim, the replacement for controversial former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Bradley Schlozman, about several of his predecessor’s policies and activities and seek to learn more about Schlozman’s partisan-motivated hiring practices.

In March, the Center for American Progress and Citizen’s Commission on Civil Rights released a joint report detailing the erosion of civil rights under the Bush administration and outlining several steps that can be taken to restore the promise of government protection of equal rights.

The report explains that the White House and Justice Department have taken advantage of the terrorist threat to erode civil rights in three important ways:

  • Illegal, long-term detention without charges; illegal wiretapping and expanded domestic spying; and many other direct encroaches on privacy and habeas corpus rights.
  • The diversion of funds from support of equal-opportunity measures to fighting a war on multiple fronts.
  • The back-door and unpublicized suspension, narrowing, and repeal of various civil liberty laws.

The fallout of the U.S. attorney firing scandal has made it even more painfully clear that the president and the Justice Department have acted more in the interest of politics than the stated mission of the civil rights division when nominating federal judges, hiring civil servants, and making decisions.

Long-time Department lawyers, non-political career staff, were often removed from their areas of expertise and responsibility, transferred or demoted, and replaced by political appointees. Furthermore, the hiring of department employees, normally influenced by an honors panel of career employees, was done completely by administration appointees. Lack of respect for the expertise of long-time Department lawyers who were committed to civil rights has led to an exodus of these career employees, creating even more opportunities to hire inexperienced, ideologically driven officials.

The report iterates, for example, that “since 2003, the three sections have hired 11 lawyers who said they were members of the conservative Federalist Society. Seven hires in the three sections are listed as members of the Republican Na tional Lawyers Association, including two who volun teered for Bush-Cheney campaigns.” Even those without interest in civil rights, but with sympathetic leanings toward the administration, found themselves in the civil rights division.

Since the beginning of the Bush administration’s remodeling of the Justice Department from its nonpartisan to now decidedly conservative slant, regressive court decisions have been handed down and responsibility for progress has been abdicated. Three examples of the negative consequences of these changes stick out in particular:

  • The criminal section diverted staff, resources, and time from the traditional mission of prosecuting hate-based violence and discrimination, especially by law enforcement and government officials, to the laudable but less-pressing effort to address human trafficking.
  • Employer discrimination has become a much smaller concern for the department. Title VII lawsuits, which cover discrimination in employment based upon race, sex, religion, and national origin, have gone down significantly during this Bush administration. Department officials have been less likely to reach out to employers to discuss these issues, and lax enforcement has helped encourage employers to cease self-assessments that often help correct problems before an active Department penalizes them for it.
  • The voting section, which enforces the 1965 Voting Rights Act, has been woefully under- and mis-used. The assistant attorney general for voting has allowed controversial and potentially discriminatory photo identification requirements at polls in multiple states—because detailed objections prepared by staff were not forwarded by political appointees in time to affect the decision. And the focus of this section as a whole has been on removing people from the eligible voters list, not protecting individuals’ rights to join or stay on the rolls.

These are just some of the myriad issues that the Justice Department under the Bush administration must be questioned about and held accountable for. Today’s hearings will be another important event in the effort to make the justice system a fair, nonpartisan protector of civil rights for all Americans.

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