If the nation's new attorney general wanted to get people's attention on the subject of race, lambasting Americans as "cowards" was a headline-grabbing first step. In the wake of the election of the nation's first black president, its first black attorney general delivered a powerful indictment on race relations. "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," Attorney General Eric Holder told Justice Department employees in a speech in February marking Black History Month.
As the country's top lawman, Holder is now in a position to tackle racial inequity. But first, he'll have to rebuild the stable of government attorneys who specialize in prosecuting complex discrimination cases. Under the Bush administration, political appointees effectively chased away the bulk of the experienced attorneys in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which handles cases of discrimination in housing, employment, and voting rights. During the past eight years, more than half of the division's career staff left or was reassigned, and its focus shifted away from traditional civil rights cases. Remaking the division is "Priority 1 right now," Holder told the National Association of Attorneys General last week. "Some of the stuff that I learned in the transition reports were frankly pretty shocking," he said. "We're going to need help as we try to reinvigorate, rebuild what has always been a great division but that has suffered a lot in the last eight years."
More broadly, the Justice Department was ground zero for a series of the most contentious fights between Bush administration political appointees and career civil servants. Yet it took six years and the firing of nine U.S. attorneys for Congress to launch investigations into activities at the department. Even now, lawmakers are still trying to get answers from former White House staffers, including Harriet Miers and Karl Rove, about the role of politics in those dismissals.
The machinations at the Civil Rights Division never received the same level of public attention as the fired attorneys. But the woes of the legendary division, which enforced school-desegregation busing and affirmative action, do illustrate the corrosive impact that political appointees can have on the business of an agency, according to investigators. "The division was the flagship of enforcement of civil rights, and now it's not even a shell of its former self in reputation or in practice," says Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Investigations by the Justice Department's inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that political appointees improperly hired lawyers based on their political views and pushed out or reassigned senior staff attorneys. In addition, the division's new hires had far less experience with civil rights cases than those hired under previous administrations, according to statistics released by the Justice Department. The inspector general's report even concluded that a former chief of the Civil Rights Division made false statements to Congress about the hiring practices and said that the combination of his actions rendered him "unsuitable for federal service." The investigations led to a new policy compelling political appointees to receive briefings on prohibited personnel practices.
The Bush administration fundamentally altered the division's mission. Between 2001 and 2005, the division brought only a single case of employment discrimination, and no cases of voter discrimination, on behalf of African-Americans. Instead, division resources were directed toward immigration, human trafficking, and issues of religious free speech, all of which had traditionally been handled by other divisions. As Holder put it during his Senate confirmation hearings, "In the last eight years, vital federal laws designed to protect rights in the workplace, the housing market, and the voting booth have languished."
For Holder, civil rights have long been a personal issue. In 1963, his sister-in-law, Vivian Malone Jones, had to be escorted to her college classes at the University of Alabama by U.S. marshals. Braving protests by angry crowds and the state's governor, George Wallace, she was one of the first two black students to attend the school.
The Civil Rights Division, which Holder has called the "conscience of the Justice Department," has around 350 lawyers who manage litigation relating to everything from housing to voting rights. Created in 1957, it was charged with enforcing an ever changing landscape of civil rights legislation. Since then, its mandate has expanded beyond racial issues to include discrimination based on gender, sex, handicap, religion, and national origin.