Restoring the integrity of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division

RESTORING THE INTEGRITY OF THE DOJ’S CIVIL RIGHTS DIVISION…. It competed with a lot of other scandals, but the Bush administration’s efforts to gut the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was a national disgrace.

Far-right attorneys suddenly were given employment priority. Career staffers were pressured out of their jobs. Cases without merit were pushed by political appointees. All of a sudden, a department that existed in large part to protect the integrity of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and shield African American voters from discrimination, started prosecuting “reverse” discrimination cases.

In one infamous instance, career lawyers with strong performance ratings were forced out of the department because loyal Bushies decided it was time to “make room for some good Americans.” “Good Americans,” of course, meant “conservative Republican Americans unconcerned with civil rights.” Seriously.

The Obama administration is starting the process of putting things right.

Seven months after taking office, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is reshaping the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division by pushing it back into some of the most important areas of American political life, including voting rights, housing, employment, bank lending practices and redistricting after the 2010 census.

As part of this shift, the Obama administration is planning a major revival of high-impact civil rights enforcement against policies, in areas ranging from housing to hiring, where statistics show that minorities fare disproportionately poorly. President George W. Bush’s appointees had discouraged such tactics, preferring to focus on individual cases in which there is evidence of intentional discrimination.

To bolster a unit that has been battered by heavy turnover and a scandal over politically tinged hiring under the Bush administration, the Obama White House has also proposed a hiring spree that would swell the ranks of several hundred civil rights lawyers with more than 50 additional lawyers, a significant increase for a relatively small but powerful division of the government.

The division is “getting back to doing what it has traditionally done,” Mr. Holder said in an interview. “But it’s really only a start. I think the wounds that were inflicted on this division were deep, and it will take some time for them to fully heal.”

The damage inflicted on this department by loyal Bushies is unforgivable. Holder’s efforts are exactly what’s needed to undo the mistakes.

How can we be sure the Justice Department is on the right track? Hans von Spakovsky has accused the Obama team of “nakedly political” maneuvers.

Hans von Spakovsky is, of course, a revolting, dishonorable figure from Bush’s team, who was a leading player in the administration’s “vote-suppression agenda.” If he’s outraged, sane people everywhere can take comfort.

Adam Serwer’s item today rang true for me: “Reforming the civil rights division may seem like a small thing. But I honestly believe the most lasting damage the Bush administration did to American society was in the Justice Department, where torture was ‘legalized,’ the right to vote became conditional, and the job of upholding the nation’s laws was entrusted to ideologues and religious fanatics who were hired based on their partisan loyalties. I think we’ve only begun to understand how much American society was warped by these developments, and how important it is to reverse them.”

Holder is getting that process started. It is, to borrow a phrase, change I can believe in.