Justice Or Politics?

NPR's Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson discusses former Justice Department attorney J. Christian Adams' claims that the department is afflicted with racial bias. Johnson says the Justice Department, in particular the Civil Rights Division, has long been at the center of a game of political tug-of-war.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As we mentioned at the outset of our conversation, this case has become something of a cause celebre in the conservative media, so we thought some additional perspective would be helpful, so we've called Carrie Johnson. She is NPR's Justice correspondent. She's also here with me in Studio 4B. Thank you so much for joining us.

CARRIE JOHNSON: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So you've heard what J. Christian Adams has to say. Can you put us in some context for us?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I think it's important to point out that over the past 20 years or so, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has been very fraught territory. And every time there's a changeover in presidential administration, one of the perks of that job is to set the priorities for the Civil Rights Division at Justice.

So, for instance, in the Reagan administration, conservatives actually came out and said they would've liked to have had more impact on the Civil Rights Division than they did. During the Clinton era, priorities changed once again. And at the start of the Bush administration, from almost the very beginning, conservatives' desire to hire people who shared their sense of priorities and enforcement issues at the department. So...

MARTIN: Not unreasonable to say the Democrats do the same thing?

JOHNSON: Democrats often do the same thing. However, it's not, in my experience, that there's been as harsh an inspector general report as Mr. Adams and you reference in your interview. There was a very tough IG report that came out about hiring in the Bush administration for the Civil Rights Division. And it was a very loaded inquiry.

MARTIN: So the inspector general said, in essence, that in this past administration they crossed the line, in his view.

JOHNSON: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: Where do you think this story goes from here? As you heard, that there's this very kind of complicated history of how the case was brought, what the initial allegations were, what the Justice Department's decision to dispose of it was. And Mr. Adams takes issue with that. Is there anything else?

JOHNSON: Yeah. First of all, I think it's important to point out that this case involves the New Black Panther Party. This is not the same organization that we all know and remember from back in the '60s. This is a more fringe type of group and their activities around the country are sort of subterranean.

Secondly, no actual voters appear to have complained, at the time, about this incident. So there have been some questions about how big a deal we should make this case. And, in fact, Abigail Thernstrom, who is a conservative member of the Civil Rights Commission, has actually called this case small potatoes and wondered why the commission is expending so much time and energy on it.

That said, the commission is still dominated by people appointed by President Bush. They have said they want to subpoena other people from the Justice Department and elsewhere. It's not at all clear the Justice Department is going to allow those people to testify. But I would not expect this case to go away entirely for some time.

MARTIN: In part because the Civil Rights Commission, which is, as we've said, dominated by persons appointed by the Bush administration, wish to continue to pursue it. Let's assume that they do find that there was some violation of Civil Rights there. What then?

JOHNSON: Well, the case did continue as to one defendant, one individual defendant, and the rest of the case was dropped. It's unlikely the Justice Department would go back and restart a case it had already walked away from.

But I think it would be a signal to the people running the Civil Rights Division and the people running the Justice Department now, that they need to be more careful in scrutinizing the activities of the Civil Rights Division.

Tom Perez is the Senate-confirmed chief of the Civil Rights Division. But he was not confirmed at the time that this case was dropped. So he doesn't have a lot of ownership over it. That said, I think everybody in the administration is now on alert that the Civil Rights Division at Justice is politicized ground and will be monitoring it closely as a result.

MARTIN: Finally, J. Christian Adams makes a broader argument. And that is that there is more of an interest, in his view, in cases with black and Latino complainants than there are in cases with white complainants. Is there any evidence that that is true, beyond the case that he is specifically interested in?

JOHNSON: We're still relatively new into the Obama administration's civil rights caseload. So I think it'd be difficult to make an overall evaluation at this point. That said, each administration decides to pursue different priorities. And when they decide to pursue those priorities, as a result, they don't have as many resources to do other things.

So, for instance, in the Bush administration, the Civil Rights Division pursued a lot more religious cases, cases in which religious groups and people were alleging they had been discriminated against on civil rights basis. In this administration is seems clear, based on statements the attorney general and the chief of the Civil Rights Division have made already, that they're interested in pursuing more wide-scale pattern and practice cases of discrimination against minorities. And that may just be a policy decision they decide to make.

MARTIN: Carrie Johnson is NPR's Justice correspondent. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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