Justice Department hiring request fuels bias complaints; 44 civil rights lawyers sought

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Questions have surfaced over a Justice Department plan to hire 44 more attorneys for its Civil Rights Division, which has been accused of bias by members of Congress and been described in a government report as having deep ideological differences that have fueled disputes harmful to its operation.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s 2014 fiscal budget says the bulk of the attorneys being sought by the Justice Department are earmarked to help meet the “nation’s civil rights challenges,” to support the “department’s vigorous enforcement of federal civil rights laws” and to expand criminal enforcement efforts against “police misconduct.”

But several senior Republicans said the Civil Rights Division historically has hired lawyers based on their political views and not their legal experience, and changes need to be made before any new lawyers are brought on board.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it will take “a new kind of leadership” to eliminate the “politicization and polarization of the Civil Rights Division.”

He said Congress needs to continue its aggressive oversight of the department and, when necessary, offer legislative reforms to ensure that bad behavior doesn’t continue for another decade at the division.

Mr. Grassley noted that the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General first reported on the division’s politicized hiring policies in 2008 and found similar problems in a follow-up report in March.

He said any hiring within the division “needs to value intellectual diversity” to put to rest any perception that employment is based on politics. Given what he called the inspector general’s “findings of flawed criteria used to hire attorneys,” he said, Congress should demand that hiring “not be so skewed that it leads to hiring almost exclusively liberal attorneys at the expense of candidates with ‘stellar academic credentials and litigation experience.’”

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice and science, has called for an independent review of the Civil Rights Division. He said the inspector general’s report made it clear that the division had become “a rat’s nest of unacceptable and unprofessional actions, and even outright threats against career attorneys and systemic mismanagement.”

In a letter to Mr. Holder, Mr. Wolf acknowledged that problems within the division were not isolated to his tenure as attorney general but said it was his responsibility to resolve them.

“It is unacceptable that these practices have continued on your watch,” Mr. Wolf wrote. “As the head of the department, you bear ultimate responsibility for the serious abuses that have occurred over the last four years. I take these issues very seriously, both because of my responsibilities as chairman of the House CJS Appropriations subcommittee, which funds the Justice Department, but also because I have been a stalwart supporter of voting rights enforcement.”

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, went to the Senate floor Wednesday to outline his opposition to the nomination of Thomas E. Perez, who heads the Civil Rights Division as an assistant attorney general, as President Obama’s labor secretary.

He said that under Mr. Perez, the Voting Rights Division compiled a “disturbing record of political discrimination and selective enforcement of our laws.” He said the inspector general’s report found that the Voting Rights Section under Mr. Perez’s leadership has become so politicized and so unprofessional that at times it became simply dysfunctional.

A confirmation vote by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee scheduled for Wednesday on Mr. Perez’s nomination was postponed until May 16 at the request of committee Republicans.

Mr. Perez came under heavy criticism from Republicans after the inspector general’s report, saying he had failed his leadership responsibilities.

Republicans also accused him of abusing his power and negotiating a dubious deal in persuading the city of St. Paul, Minn., to drop a housing discrimination case that was headed for the Supreme Court. In exchange, the Justice Department agreed to withdraw two whistleblower cases against the city that Republicans said could have won up to $200 million in settlements for taxpayers.

Mr. Perez has defended his actions in the St. Paul case and at the Justice Department. He said an adverse ruling by the Supreme Court in the St. Paul case would have jeopardized the government’s standing on future housing discrimination cases. The Justice Department described litigation decisions by Mr. Perez as being “in the best interests of the United States.”

Democrats also defended Mr. Perez, saying he and other Justice Department officials acted professionally “to advance the interests of civil rights and effectively combat the scourge of discrimination in housing.” They called the accusations part of a broader political campaign to undermine the legal safeguards against discrimination that Mr. Perez was protecting.

The March report documented what Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz described as deep ideological divisions within the Voting Rights Section, an office within the Civil Rights Division. The report said the division fueled disputes harmful to its operation and often evolved into the harassment of its employees and managers.

The report also outlined concerns by section employees that attorneys could not pursue cases against black defendants for the benefit of white victims, and located emails in which current and former voting section attorneys criticized and mocked Christopher Coates, the section chief, for his work in a discrimination case in Mississippi against a black official who used fraud and lawlessness to discriminate against the white minority.

One email sent to four former voting section attorneys after the Mississippi complaint had been filed referred to Mr. Coates as a “klansman.” Another section employee wrote in an email that those who “fought and died” for the Voting Rights Act were “rolling over in their graves with that perversion of the act im sorry, but [White people] are NOT covered for a reason.”

In his report, Mr. Horowitz said investigators found that some career employees in the Voting Rights Section “contributed significantly to the atmosphere of polarization and distrust by harassing other career employees due at least in part to their political ideology or for positions taken on particular cases.” That behavior, the report said, included outward hostility, and snide and mocking emails.

Mr. Holder, as part of his $27.6 billion overall budget, wants $258.6 million for 25 more lawyers to strengthen civil rights enforcement efforts across all areas; 10 more attorneys to expand civil enforcement efforts in financial and mortgage fraud cases; and nine more attorneys to expand civil and criminal enforcement efforts in targeting police misconduct.

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