[Mb-civic] Civil Rights Focus Shift Roils Staff At Justice -
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Sun Nov 13 07:09:46 PST 2005
Civil Rights Focus Shift Roils Staff At Justice
Veterans Exit Division as Traditional Cases Decline
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2005; Page A01
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
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.
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