A Nov. 13 article incorrectly said that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division filed three friend-of-the-court briefs in fiscal 2005, down from 22 in 1999. The division filed 14 such briefs in 2005. The article also said that lawyer Richard Ugelow left the division in 2004. He left in 2002.
Civil Rights Focus Shift Roils Staff At Justice
Sunday, November 13, 2005
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which has enforced the nation's anti-discrimination laws for nearly half a century, is in the midst of an upheaval that has driven away dozens of veteran lawyers and has damaged morale for many of those who remain, according to former and current career employees.
Nearly 20 percent of the division's lawyers left in fiscal 2005, in part because of a buyout program that some lawyers believe was aimed at pushing out those who did not share the administration's conservative views on civil rights laws. Longtime litigators complain that political appointees have cut them out of hiring and major policy decisions, including approvals of controversial GOP redistricting plans in Mississippi and Texas.
At the same time, prosecutions for the kinds of racial and gender discrimination crimes traditionally handled by the division have declined 40 percent over the past five years, according to department statistics. Dozens of lawyers find themselves handling appeals of deportation orders and other immigration matters instead of civil rights cases.
The division has also come under criticism from the courts and some Democratsfor its decision in August to approve a Georgia program requiring voters to present government-issued identification cards at the polls. The program was halted by an appellate court panel and a district court judge, who likened it to a poll tax from the Jim Crow era.
"Most everyone in the Civil Rights Division realized that with the change of administration, there would be some cutting back of some cases," said Richard Ugelow, who left the division in 2004 and now teaches law at American University. "But I don't think people anticipated that it would go this far, that enforcement would be cut back to the point that people felt like they were spinning their wheels."
The Justice Department and its supporters strongly dispute the complaints. Justice spokesman Eric Holland noted that the overall attrition rate during the Bush administration, about 13 percent, is not significantly higher than the 11 percent average during the last five years under President Bill Clinton.
Holland also said that the division filed a record number of criminal prosecutions in 2004. A quarter of those cases were related tohuman-trafficking crimes, which were made easier to prosecute under legislation passed at the end of the Clinton administration and which account for a growing proportion of the division's caseload.
In addition, Holland defended the department's decision to approve the Georgia voter law, saying that "career and political attorneys together concluded" that the measure would have no negative effect on minorities.
"This administration has continued the robust and vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws," Holland wrote in an e-mail statement, adding later: "These accomplishments could not have been achieved without teamwork between career attorneys and political appointees."
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, the first Hispanic to hold the job, named civil rights enforcement as one of his priorities after taking office earlier this year and supports reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.
Although relations between the career and political ranks have been strained throughout the Justice Department over the past five years, the level of conflict has been particularly high in civil rights, according to current and former staffers. The debate over civil rights flared in the Senate in recent weeks after the nomination of Wan J. Kim, who was confirmed on Nov. 4 as the assistant attorney general for the division and is the third person to hold that job during the Bush administration. Kim has been the civil rights deputy for the past two years.
There were no serious objections to Kim's nomination, but Democrats including Sens. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) said they were concerned about serious problems with morale and enforcement within the division.