By Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 28, 2007
The Justice Department is removing political appointees from the hiring process for rookie lawyers and summer interns, amid allegations that the Bush administration had rigged the programs in favor of candidates with connections to conservative or Republican groups, according to documents and officials.
The decision, outlined in an internal memo distributed Thursday, returns control of the Attorney General's Honors Program and the Summer Law Intern Program to career lawyers in the department after four years during which political appointees directed the process.
The changes come as the Justice Department is scrutinized for its hiring and firing practices because of the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys. Some of the fired prosecutors were removed because they were not considered "loyal Bushies" by senior Justice and White House officials.
Justice officials said the change was prompted by a contentious staff meeting in early December, which included complaints that political appointees led by Michael J. Elston, chief of staff for Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, had rejected an unusually large number of applicants during the most recent hiring period. Last year, about 400 applicants were interviewed for the honors program -- the primary path to a Justice Department job for new lawyers -- down from more than 600 the year before.
The House and Senate Judiciary committees also are investigating allegations from an anonymous group of Justice employees that most of those cut from the application lists had worked for Democrats or liberal causes and that Elston removed people for spurious reasons that included "inappropriate information about them on the Internet."
Justice officials strongly deny that political or partisan factors play any role in who is chosen for the two programs. But they acknowledged yesterday that the involvement of political appointees helped feed suspicions that the process had been tainted.
"The Justice Department does not, nor has it ever, solicited any information from applicants . . . about their political affiliation or orientation," said Justice spokesman Dean Boyd. But, he added, the changes "should further improve the process and eliminate even the perception of any political influence."
The honors program, established during the Eisenhower administration, is a highly regarded recruiting program that attracts thousands of applicants from top-flight law schools for about 150 spots each year and has been overseen for most of its history by senior career lawyers at Justice. Then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft reworked the program in 2002, shifting control from career employees to himself and his aides.
The changes alarmed many current and former Justice officials, who feared that the Bush administration was seeking to pack the department with conservative ideologues. Many law school placement officers said in 2003 that they noticed a marked shift to the right in the students approached for honors program interviews.
Complaints about the program emerged again this month after Senate and House investigators received a letter from the unidentified Justice employees, who alleged that hiring at the department was "consistently and methodically being eroded by partisan politics." The letter singled out the honors and intern programs, alleging that senior political appointees appeared to reject applicants who "had interned for a Hill Democrat, clerked for a Democratic judge, worked for a 'liberal' cause, or otherwise appeared to have 'liberal' leanings."
Boyd and other Justice officials said such allegations are without merit. They pointed to statistics showing that Harvard, Stanford, Yale and other elite universities continue to dominate hiring for the honors program. Officials said many of the complaints last fall stemmed from serious delays in the review process, partly because Elston and other political officials were new to the process.
Louis DeFalaise, a career employee and director of the Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management, said in Thursday's memo that his office would oversee the hiring process, which will be handled by career lawyers from various Justice divisions. Similar changes will be applied to the summer intern program, according to the memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post.
"The 2007 changes to these programs represent another step in the department's multi-year effort to enhance these prestigious programs," Boyd said.
According to current and former Justice employees, many of whom spoke about fellow lawyers on the condition of anonymity, the centralization of the honors program selection process in the hands of political appointees markedly changed the profile of the entry-level lawyers hired, particularly in the department's civil rights division.
Since 2002, when Ashcroft adopted the hiring method the department is now abandoning, a large share of honors hires have had strong conservative or Republican ties, according to Justice lawyers and law school career-placement officers.
Bill Condon, an honors hire in the civil rights division who graduated in 2004 from Regent University, a small Christian school in Virginia Beach, recounted his job interview recently in the school's alumni magazine. Condon wrote that, when an interviewer asked him which Supreme Court decision he disagreed with most, Condon cited a 2003 ruling that struck down a Texas law outlawing homosexual acts, a decision that has been a lightning rod for social conservatives.
One of his interviewers, Condon wrote, suggested that, coming from Regent, "I may be interested in some religious liberties cases" the civil rights division was bringing in a new area of emphasis for the division.
According to a former deputy chief in the civil rights division, one honors hire was a University of Mississippi law school graduate who had been a clerk for U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. about the time the judge's nomination by President Bush to a federal appeals court provoked opposition by congressional Democrats, who contended that Pickering was hostile to civil rights.
A few months after he arrived, that lawyer was given a cash award by the department, after he was the only member of a four-person team in the civil rights division who sided with a Georgia voter-identification law that was later struck down by the courts as discriminatory to minorities, according to two former Justice lawyers.
Another honors hire, a graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Law who had been president of the campus chapter of the Federalist Society, displayed a bust of President James Madison in his Justice office, according to a former honors program lawyer who was hired during the Clinton administration. A profile of Madison's face is the logo of the society, which is based on conservative precepts.
"When I started," the former honors program lawyer said, "it was rare you met people whose civil rights credentials were that they were part of the Federalist Society, but it became a commonplace thing."
Justice officials say it is hardly unusual for a lawyer to be a member of the Federalist Society, which has more than 30,000 members in 65 chapters worldwide.
Harvard Law School officials said they contacted the department last fall, after students seeking internships expressed concern that they had not been notified by October whether they would be granted an interview, as the department had promised.