The Difficult Job of Restoring Credibility to the Civil Rights Division

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

NO PART OF the Justice Department was more harmed by partisan politics during the Bush administration than the Civil Rights Division. Political litmus tests were inappropriately and illegally applied in hiring career and nonpolitical posts. ("Libs" and "pinkos" need not apply.) Department leaders de-emphasized and at times discouraged litigation in areas that had been central to the division's mission, including voting rights, housing and employment discrimination. They often shunned cases against police departments and other institutions engaged in a "pattern or practice" of discrimination. Morale plummeted, leading to a mass exodus that sapped the division of skilled lawyers and institutional memory.

The New York Times reports that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. intends to refocus the division on core functions and hopes to hire more than 50 additional lawyers.

Significant advances have been achieved in protecting the voting rights of minorities and in combating discrimination in all facets of American life. But Mr. Holder is right to try to restore the vitality and integrity of the beleaguered division. Without the force and presence of the government, many of these advances could be imperiled.

Yet 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.

They should also rethink whether 50 new slots are needed to augment the 340 or so lawyers already on staff. According to the Justice Department, the 50 positions would require roughly $10 million of additional funding -- a relative drop in the bucket -- and would be used to restock parts of the division that were depleted when lawyers were deployed to take on Bush-era initiatives against human trafficking and religious discrimination. Mr. Holder has said he would like to maintain those programs without having to lock in the personnel losses in the division's more traditional pursuits.

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