Lawyers tied to liberals rejected in hiring

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Top Justice Department officials looking to hire a generation of conservative entry-level lawyers rejected candidates who interned for Hill Democrats, clerked for Democratic judges, worked for liberal causes or otherwise appeared to have liberal leanings, a report said Tuesday.

Even summa cum laude graduates of Yale and Harvard were rejected for interviews because they were said to have a liberal bias, including one who spoke out against the nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court, according to a joint report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility.

One Harvard graduate, rated as a successful intern in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, was rejected because she worked as an intern at Planned Parenthood.

A summa cum laude Harvard graduate was rejected because she worked for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. A student who was in the top 5 percent of his class at Cleveland State Law School was rejected because he had worked for Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat.

But, according to the report, another Cleveland State Law School student who was in the top 20 percent of the class was accepted because his application did not identify any particular political experience or leanings.

The report also noted that a student at Stanford Law School, who graduated with distinction and had a clerkship at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was rejected because he had clerked for a judge who had been appointed by President Clinton.

Kevin Olhson, deputy director of the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, complained to investigators that a “significant number” of the office’s recommended candidates “who could be construed as … left-wing” or who were “perceived, based on their applications and resumes and so forth, as being more liberal” were rejected.

Mr. Olhson told the investigators, according to the report, that he reached that conclusion based on the fact that “many of the deselected candidates had had internships with organizations such as Human Rights Watch or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), or had assisted in defending someone held at Guantanamo Bay.”

The report concluded that Justice Department officials “inappropriately” used political and ideological affiliations to pick entry-level lawyers, eliminating candidates with Democratic Party and liberal affiliations at a “significantly higher rate ” than those with Republican, conservative or neutral ties.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and H. Marshall Jarrett, head of the Office of Professional Responsibility, said the selection committee used political and ideological affiliations to “deselect” candidates for the department’s Honors Program and Summer Law Intern Program (SLIP) in 2002 and 2006.

“The department’s screening committee inappropriately used political factors when considering the hiring of career attorneys, when merit should have been the sole criteria,” said Mr. Fine. “These actions undermined confidence in the integrity of the department’s hiring processes.”

Mr. Jarrett said the report “exposes the wrongdoing that occurred, and provides recommendations on how to prevent the improper infusion of partisan politics into the workings of the Honors Program and the Summer Law Intern Program in the future.”

Before 2002, career employees in each department component decided which applicants to interview and select for the Honors Program and SLIP. Under a system implemented by Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2002, a screening committee generally composed of politically appointed employees from the department’s leadership offices had to approve candidates for both programs.

In addition, political appointees in each department component were encouraged to become more involved in the hiring process, the report said.

The Honors Program is a highly competitive program for entry-level department attorneys. SLIP also is highly competitive and is designed for paid summer internships for law students.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the report confirmed “what our oversight efforts in this Congress have uncovered about the politicization of hiring practices at the department.”

“It confirms our findings and our fears that the same senior department officials involved with the firing of United States attorneys were injecting improper political motives into the process of hiring young attorneys,” he said.

“This report and those to follow will serve as a reminder to future presidents - and future congresses - that never again should blatant partisanship be made the crux of the Justice Department’s hiring practices,” he said.

Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said he agreed with all the recommendations made in the report to prevent politics from influencing the screening process.

“The department overhauled its Honors Program and Summer Law Intern Program hiring processes last year, and I am pleased that the report remarked positively on these institutional changes,” he said. “I have also made clear, and will continue to make clear, that the consideration of political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees is impermissible and unacceptable.

“The joint report issued today contains additional recommendations aimed at ensuring that political and ideological affiliations are not inappropriately used to evaluate candidates for these programs; I accept, and have directed the implementation, of all of those recommendations,” he said.

According to the report, screening committees in 2002 and 2006 improperly deselected candidates for interviews based on political and ideological affiliations, which violated department policy and federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of political affiliations. The report said the department is required to use merit-based hiring practices that identify qualified applicants through fair and open competition.

The report said that during 2003, 2004 and 2005, the screening committees made few deselections and investigators concluded that those deselection decisions could “reasonably be explained on the basis of a combination of low class rank, low grades and attendance at a lower-tier law school.

“We found that in 2006, the screening committee inappropriately used political and ideological affiliations to deselect a significant number of candidates,” it said, adding that again those picked mainly had Republican or conservative affiliations.

The report said two members of the 2006 screening committee - Esther Slater McDonald, then counsel to the associate attorney general, and Michael Elston, then chief of staff to the deputy attorney general - took political or ideological affiliations into account in deselecting candidates.

It said Ms. McDonald wrote disparaging statements about candidates’ liberal and Democratic affiliations on the applications she reviewed and voted on that basis. It said that when she was challenged by a career Justice Department attorney detailed to the screening committee, Mr. Elston, who headed the committee, “failed to take appropriate action.”

The report said “many qualified candidates were deselected by the screening committee in 2006 because of their perceived political or ideological affiliations.”

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