In December 2009, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lamented not that President Bush had politicized the Justice Department, but that he didn't politicize it enough. But with its purge of U.S. attorneys, complicity in rubber-stamping detainee torture and blessing illegal domestic surveillance, the Bush administration's gutting of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division and the perversion of its mission often passed unnoticed. Mercifully, under President Obama the agency is rising from the ashes.
As the Washington Post detailed Friday, the devastation of the Civil Right Division in George W. Bush's wake was staggering:
Nearly 70 percent of the lawyers had left between 2003 and 2007, a mass exodus that came during allegations the Bush administration was politicizing hiring. Internal watchdogs concluded that the division's former head had refused to hire lawyers he labeled "commies" and had transferred one for allegedly writing in "ebonics," allegations the official denied. Civil rights groups said the unit had lost its traditional civil rights focus.
But now, the Obama administration is resurrecting the agency created in 1957 to protect the Freedom Riders and students trying to integrate public schools. The division has a renewed new focus on the enforcement of employment, disability rights and other anti-discrimination laws, and the resources to go along with it:
Hate crimes and police misconduct are a renewed focus, and several section chiefs from the George W. Bush era have left. More than 30 people have been or are about to be hired as part of an 18 percent budget increase this year, the largest in the division's history. It will bring in 102 new people.
And in recent weeks, the division has taken a leading role in preparing for a possible Obama administration lawsuit against Arizona over the state's new immigration law.
As division chief Thomas E. Perez put it, "We had some healing to do." Perez added:
"We had to restore the partnership between the career staff and the political leadership. And frankly, certain civil rights laws were not being enforced."
Among those laws was something called the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Under President Bush, the Justice Department became an essential tool in the Republican strategy to suppress minority (read "Democratic") voter turnout through unprecedented redistricting, onerous registration hurdles, hyper-partisan prosecutors, polling place chicanery and draconian voter identification laws. Two examples, one from Georgia and the other from Mississippi, reveal just how Attorney General Gonzales turned the mission of his Civil Rights Division on its head.
In March 2005, the GOP-controlled Georgia legislature passed a voter identification law. Nominally aimed at countering voter fraud, the transparent aim of this virtual poll tax is to suppress the African-American vote - and Democratic prospects - in the state, especially in Atlanta. The bill's sponsor, Augusta Republican Sue Burmeister explained that when black voters in her black precincts "are not paid to vote, they don't go to the polls."
Under the law, Georgia voters would have to present one of six officially recognized forms of identification. Those without driver's licenses would have to pay $20 a new digital ID card, available at motor vehicle offices in only 59 of Georgia's 159 counties.
The impact of the law as originally drafted would have been dramatic. The ACLU estimated that as many as 153,000 Georgians would be impacted (based on 2004 numbers); across the state, 231,000 households had no access to a car and 147,000 had no phone service.
Unfortunately for the Republican Party, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 not only banned poll taxes, but mandated that Georgia and eight other southern states must submit proposed voting rules changes to the Justice Department for review of their impact on minority voters. This "pre-clearance" process allows DOJ to block laws and rule changes in the suspect states that would dilute minority voting.
Which is where the Bush Justice Department came in. As the Washington Post reported in November 2005, Bush political appointees overruled the overwhelming recommendation of DOJ career staff that the Georgia ID program be halted. In a 51-page memoon August 25, 2005, the Civil Rights Division review team voted 4-1 to block the Georgia law. The next day, however, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his aides overruled the carerr lawyers and granted pre-clearance.
After several court challenges blocked the Georgia law, a modified version eventually passed muster (much to the delight of the Bush Justice Department's resident voter suppression expert, Hans von Spakovsky).
In May 2006, President Bush's DOJ undertook one of its only actions to enforce the Voting Rights Act. After Gonzales had previously refused to pursue enforcement in Georgia, Alabama and Texas, his Justice Department intervened in Mississippi - on behalf of white voters.
The DOJ argued that the African-American Democratic Executive Committee chairman in Noxubee County Ike Brown led an effort to suppress the vote of white residents. And in June 2007, a federal judge agreed that white voters were subjected to discrimination based upon their race.
For his part, President Obama in his 2010 State of the Union address pledged to rehabilitate the Justice Department, promising that "My administration has a Civil Rights Division that is once again prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination." (By March 20, his CRD had 29 employment discrimination cases compared to just one during the same time frame during the Bush administration.) His Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to make the division the department's "crown jewel."
But if the Obama administration is winning the battle to restore the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, it is losing the war in the courts. In June 2006, the Supreme Court blessed Tom Delay's GOP-friendly redistricting plan in Texas. In April 2008, the Court ruled 6-3 in favor of Indiana's voter ID law, one which Judge Thomas Evans of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals argued "is a not-too-thinly veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by certain folks believed to skew Democratic." And last June, the Roberts Court in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder took the first steps towards eliminating the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act altogether.
On the same day that the Washington Post announced the rebirth of Civil Rights Division, its would-be assassin Alberto Gonzales resurfaced for a rare interview. In the process of shopping his memoirs, the Texas Tech professor reflected:
"It's good to be back in Texas. This part of the state is very much Bush country."
Thank God the same can no longer be said for the rest of America.