Dueling letters from disparate coalitions with opposing perspectives demonstrate the dangers of politically contaminated federal employment at a time when congressional Republicans are moving to weaken civil service due process protections.
Both messages were sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and agree on one thing — the Civil Rights Division is the “crown jewel” of the Justice Department. And both use years-old department reports to support their positions, although in one case that strategy boomerangs.
Under the Obama administration, the jewel shined as the division fought against voter suppression efforts and for fair, unbiased law enforcement during a period when police violence, particularly against African American men, shocked the nation — even as black folks knew it was nothing new.
During his confirmation hearing, Sessions indicated he would tarnish that sheen when he said department lawsuits that lead to consent decrees outlining local police reforms “undermine the respect for police officers.” Once in office, he tried and failed to derail Baltimore’s consent decree, a document city leaders, including the police commissioner, endorse.
The first missive, organized by the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation and signed by 25 individuals in March, condemns “ideological rot” in the Civil Rights Division and notably strikes at career employees there. “Entrenched federal bureaucrats,” it said, “jettisoned precepts like equal enforcement in favor of political and racialized dogmas.”
Meanwhile, protections against a politicized civil service would suffer if Republicans succeed in spreading sharp limitations on workplace due process rights. That has already been done to Department of Veterans Affairs senior executives, with an Obama administration acceptance it came to regret. One GOP proposal would allow new feds to be fired for “no cause at all.”
The letter urges Sessions to take hiring decisions from career supervisors and centralize it in the hands of political appointees, even as it complains Obama administration hiring was too political. Politically appointed assistant attorneys general, it said, “must preserve or reacquire hiring authority and not leave the decisions in the hands of career bureaucrats who are reliably opposed to President Trump’s agenda.”
Two-dozen progressive and good-government groups responded last week with a letter organized by United to Protect Democracy, a new group that fights “an unprecedented tide of authoritarian-style politics” under Trump.
The conservatives’ “recommendation appears to call for a return to the improper and illegal hiring practices undertaken at the Department of Justice in the mid-2000s, including in the Civil Rights Division, where actual or perceived political affiliation was used to make hiring and other personnel decisions,” the United letter reads. “We remind you that making hiring decisions or taking — or failing to take — other personnel actions (such as the assignment of cases) based on actual or perceived political affiliation is a violation of the merits system protections contained in the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) and other federal law.”
Notably, a signer of the conservatives’ letter was cited in a 2008 Justice Department report into illegal Civil Rights Division hiring during the George W. Bush administration. It said Bradley Schlozman, then an acting assistant attorney general, “considered political and ideological affiliations in hiring career attorneys and in other personnel actions affecting career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division. In doing so, he violated federal law — the Civil Service Reform Act — and Department policy that prohibit discrimination in federal employment.”
Department officials linked letter co-signer Hans von Spakovsky to Schlozman when it said von Spakovsky “reviewed résumés, made recommendations for applicants to be interviewed, and conducted interviews.” Now a Heritage Foundation manager, von Spakovsky worked with Schlozman at Justice. Schlozman was not prosecuted.
“We did not do any politicized hiring,” von Spakovsky said by email, “We did try to hire individuals who would carry out the enforcement priorities of the Bush administration. Everyone I recommended for hiring had strong credentials and proven legal experience — the kind of legal experience that the 2013 IG report says the Voting Section ignored during the Obama administration.”
The conservatives’ dispatch cited that inspector general’s report when their letter said: “Worst of all, former Assistant Attorney General (Thomas) Perez specifically refused to implement the recommendations of the Inspector General when it comes to hiring.”
The IG report said favoring candidates with a “ ‘demonstrated interest in the enforcement of civil rights laws’ … risks skewing the qualified applicant pool to candidates having experience … with a limited number of civil rights groups.”
In his written response to the IG, Perez, now chairman of the Democratic Party, defended the hiring preference, saying “it is both usual and appropriate” for a department office “to value experience in the subject matter of that component when making hiring decisions.”
While the conservatives used the report to back claims that the Civil Rights Division under Obama “served purely ideological ends with rigidity unmatched in other federal offices,” the inspector general came to no such conclusion.
In fact, the report said the IG’s review of voting section hiring “did not reveal that allowed political or ideological bias to influence their hiring decisions. All members of the hiring committee, including the one member who was a self-identified Republican, told us that politics and ideology were not part of the hiring committee’s deliberations.”
The conservatives also told Sessions to reverse Justice Department efforts against laws that discourage voting, what they call “politically-driven pursuits against state photo voter identification requirements, citizenship verification in voter registration, and common-sense adjustments to early voting periods.”
Responded Ian Bassin, United’s executive director:
“The suggestion that the Trump administration should steamroll long-standing civil service protections in order to facilitate voter suppression efforts — all against the backdrop of phony claims about millions of noncitizen voters — is a perfect storm of threats to our democracy.”