MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We've been reporting all this week about the hiring scandal at the Justice Department. The department's inspector general found that senior officials illegally established a requirement that all career attorneys they hired must be conservative.
In a previous story, we explored the options for people who were denied jobs because they didn't seem conservative enough. Today, NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on what may happen to the people who were hired for the wrong reasons.
ARI SHAPIRO: Democrats are angry. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said it looks likes the bad guys got away with it. Senior Justice officials installed political ideologues in positions that are supposed to be free from politics. Now, the people they hired effectively have tenure, and Senator Whitehouse wants to know whether Congress can do anything about it.
Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): Should there be some consequence for folks who come through - or purports to be a civil service process but is truly a bogus one and now hold a position that grants them civil service protection that they frankly don't deserve?
SHAPIRO: Whitehouse suggested a plan: People who were hired through a flawed process will temporarily lose civil service protections until they go through some sort of a legitimate hiring process.
Sen. WHITEHOUSE: It takes the prize out of the game.
SHAPIRO: This is a touchy subject. On one hand, no one wants a witch hunt. On the other hand, no one wants political hacks in sensitive jobs. NYU public service professor Paul Light believes there's no way to unring this bell.
Professor PAUL LIGHT (Public Service, New York University): Once you're in the club, you're in the club.
SHAPIRO: He says even if Congress could remove civil service protections from some Justice Department employees, it would set a bad precedent.
Prof. LIGHT: The civil service process is designed to protect employees from political interference. By stripping civil servants of protections after the fact, you undermine the whole notion of civil service protection.
SHAPIRO: But former Justice official Robert Raben says you have to do something. Raben led the department's legislative affairs office under President Clinton.
Mr. ROBERT RABEN (Former Justice Department Official): They've been caught with their hand in the ideological cookie jar. They have been caught hiring people for non-political, non-policy positions who, they believe, have very deep ideological commitments to a certain point of view.
SHAPIRO: Raben says you can't fire people just because they were hired through a flawed system, but he says supervisors need to watch those people carefully to make sure their decision to indict someone, for example, is not motivated by politics.
Mr. RABEN: God bless the supervisors who have to prove that in the next administration, but I think it's critical. The number one issue here is confidence among the American people that cases are taken in a way that isn't influenced by political ideology.
SHAPIRO: Attorney General Michael Mukasey has adopted that forward-looking approach. He often says hiring decisions and legal judgments will not be motivated by politics, but he's shown no desire to revisit past decisions.
Joshua Berman used to work in the department's Public Integrity section, and he thinks that's the correct approach.
Mr. JOSHUA BERMAN (Former Employee, Public Integrity Section, Department of Justice): To turn the flashlight back on the people who have entered and to re-evaluate their admission into the department would be extremely difficult.
SHAPIRO: He has faith in the performance evaluation process that already exists.
Mr. BERMAN: There are people who, on paper, perhaps should have not been granted admission into the Justice Department who turned out to be fabulous lawyers and fabulous leaders. On the other hand, there's folks who got in who shouldn't have - who end up being flashes in the pan and the system should, over time, correct itself.
SHAPIRO: Prosecutors were not the only people hired based on politics. Twenty or 40 immigration judges also earned jobs based on an illegal partisan litmus test. That's 10 or 20 percent of the total pool of immigration judges. At yesterday's hearing, Inspector General Glenn Fine told senators that a few of those judges have already dropped out because they just weren't up to the job.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.