Senate Holds Hearing on Civil Rights Enforcement

Criticism of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division came to a head Thursday when the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the division's activities.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's a news item. The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday held an oversight hearing into the actions of the Justice Department's civil rights division. Frankly, hearings like this do not normally make a lot of news, but this is the first such hearing in five years.

It comes amid a growing chorus of complaints about the job the division is doing enforcing the country's civil rights laws.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: At the hearing's conclusion, committee chairman Arlen Specter said, sometimes our hearings are kind of lame, kind of tepid. But this has been very spirited. Spirited indeed.

Ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont called voter intimidation in the 2006 elections...

PATRICK LEAHY: Sleazy, sleazy.

SHAPIRO: And Democrat Charles Schumer of New York insisted...

CHARLES SCHUMER: The only way this is going to stop, sir, is when some people get some jail time.

SHAPIRO: Wan Kim, who runs the civil rights division, said he is concerned about schemes to discourage or mislead voters. But prosecuting those schemes? He said, not my job.

WAN KIM: Historically within the Department of Justice, we have divided responsibilities between the civil rights division to enforce voter access, and for the criminal division to police voter fraud.

SHAPIRO: Career attorneys who've left the civil rights division say Kim could take on some of the voter access cases that deal with race discrimination. But those attorneys were mostly at the hearing to testify about what civil rights lawyer Joseph Rich called...

JOSEPH RICH, Host:

A hostility to career employees who express disagreement with political appointees or were perceived as disloyal.

SHAPIRO: A bit of background: The Justice Department is staffed with career attorneys who may spend decades at the department, and political appointees who come and go with each administration. Rich was a career attorney at civil rights for 37 years.

He said his former colleagues have left the division in droves, taking the place's institutional memory with them. And he said there's been a change in the system to hire their replacements.

RICH: This change resulted in virtually eliminating career attorney input into hiring decisions, and a hiring system that lost all transparency to those in the division.

SHAPIRO: He said the new hires have less civil rights experience and more conservative political credentials. Division leader Wan Kim said he does not hire based on ideology. Michael Carvin, who was a political appointee in civil rights under President Reagan, said the departing career attorneys are not without bias themselves.

MICHAEL CARVIN: This is a very recurring theme whenever people who have a certain slant in terms of the way they want to approach the law are confronted with a Republican administration that in my view, takes a more evenhanded and neutral approach.

SHAPIRO: Democrats have been champing at a bit to hold yesterday's hearing. Chairman Specter wryly noted that few of them actually decided to attend. Senator Leahy, who's the chairman in waiting, said he suspects there will be more civil rights oversight hearings in the coming year. Specter deadpanned, sounds like a well-founded suspicion to me.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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