Political Tumoil in DOJ's Civil Rights Division The venerable Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is in turmoil amid allegations Bush administration appointees sided with Republican politicians in key Voting Rights Act cases. William Yeomans, a 24-year veteran of the division, and Sherrilyn Ifill, associate law professor at the University of Maryland, discuss the situation with Ed Gordon.

Political Tumoil in DOJ's Civil Rights Division

Political Tumoil in DOJ's Civil Rights Division

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5045529/5045530" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The venerable Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is in turmoil amid allegations Bush administration appointees sided with Republican politicians in key Voting Rights Act cases. William Yeomans, a 24-year veteran of the division, and Sherrilyn Ifill, associate law professor at the University of Maryland, discuss the situation with Ed Gordon.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

In 2003, a team of lawyers in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division unanimously agreed that a Republican redistricting plan in Texas would hurt black and Hispanic voters. According to a memo obtained by The Washington Post, their decision was overruled by political appointees. The planned moved forward, and Texas Republicans gained six congressional seats in the 2004 election. This is the latest in a series of revelations that suggest a change in the way the Civil Rights Decision chooses and reviews cases. The Washington Post reported a 40 percent decline in traditional racial and gender discrimination suits brought by the department. In a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Republican Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, requested an explanation. He noted his committee is, quote, "deeply concerned with what appears to be a trend within the Department of Justice away from vigorous prosecution of civil rights cases."

For more, we're joined in our Washington, DC, headquarters by William Yeomans, director of programs for the American Constitution Society. He spent 24 years in the Civil Rights Division and served as acting assistant attorney general and chief of staff before leaving this year. And joining us from member station WYPR in Baltimore is Sherrilyn Ifill, associate professor of law at the University of Maryland. One note before we begin: We should note that we invited representatives from the Department of Justice to participate in this conversation. They declined our invitation.

Mr. Yeomans, let me start with you. We should note that there are two delineations, if you will, within the offices there in the division. That's the front office; those are the appointees and what many consider the career lawyers not usually transient with the administrations that come in and out. Talk to me about what you saw, particularly over the course of the last couple of years.

Mr. WILLIAM YEOMANS (American Constitution Society): I think that what we saw is a really unprecedented effort to politicize decision making and to politicize the career ranks of the Civil Rights Division. When the Bush administration first came in, they came in with a clear attitude that they did not trust the people who were already there, the career people who served from administration to administration, who developed the expertise in enforcement of civil rights laws and who are really the backbone of what goes on in civil rights enforcement.

So one of the first things that they did was to change hiring practices. Traditionally, the hiring of young attorneys had been handled primarily by the career attorneys who traveled around the country, interviewed people, found the best attorneys based on merit, came back and made recommendations to the political people, and those recommendations were generally accepted. Early on, the assistant attorney general abolished that process and put hiring completely in the hands of political appointees. And what we saw was a dramatic change in the kinds of people who were being hired. Ideology clearly came to play a much larger role in hiring than it had before.

GORDON: And within that ideology--Let me interrupt you there--we should note that, particularly the case of what we are seeing The Washington Post break, over the course of the last week or so, are confidential memos and a memorandum that has been released by The Post that they have obtained showing in different cases where lawyers had suggested that following through on particular cases--We mentioned one in Texas; there's another one in Georgia--that suggested if followed through, it would be detrimental to African-American and Hispanic minority voters in that state. The recommendation was not to go through with the act. The appointees read that and further suggested that they would, indeed, go through with it.

Professor, when you hear this, when you see the ideological shift, if you will, the political shift, and the pressure that's being put on employees to move with this shift, how much can one suggest that this is fair game in politics?

Professor SHERRILYN IFILL (University of Maryland): You know, Ed, the truth is that we know that administrations come and go, and they bring with them political appointees. But you know, Bill Yeomans is being really quite restrained in how he's describing what we've seen in this last administration. I mean, I'm a civil rights lawyer and was an advocate when the first President Bush was in the White House, and so I had an opportunity to interact with folks at the Justice Department, both political and career appointees, and the understanding always was that the career folks were the experts.

This is a very complex area of law, particularly when we're talking about Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and that requires particular jurisdictions to submit any changes they want to make to voting practices or procedures to the Department of Justice for approval. And it involves really a very complex area of law that requires some expertise, requires some knowledge, and that's what the career folks provide. The career folks are the ones who are going to push back, and I've had my own struggles with folks who've been there for a long time as I've tried to get them to view things my way. But they have always been regarded as being largely independent and taking quite seriously the charge of the Civil Rights Division to enforce federal statutes that prohibit discrimination. And so they kind of stand apart, and over various administrations, whether they be Democrats or Republicans, that's been the role of the career attorneys. What Bill Yeomans is describing...

GORDON: Mr. Yeomans, let me ask you this, then. Forgive me, Professor. I'll come right back to you.

Prof. IFILL: Sure.

GORDON: But, Mr. Yeomans, let me ask you this, then. The division has shown a 40 percent cut, according to The Washington Post, in traditional discrimination cases that it's taken up, and there are indications that it's been taking up, for instance, more reverse discrimination cases, if you will. Why do you think this is occurring?

Mr. YEOMANS: Well...

GORDON: Do you believe that there is a true racial component to this?

Mr. YEOMANS: Well, there's a clear pattern. What the motivation is, is unclear, but the choice of enforcement priorities--and that is something that people expect to change somewhat from administration to administration, but within limits--is important. And what's happened here is across the board--in voting rights, in employment, in housing, in criminal enforcement. The kinds of cases that benefit African-Americans in particular have been downplayed. In voting--Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is the key statute that is enforced. And there have been no Section 2 cases filed in which African-American voters were alleged to have been discriminated against since 2001. In employment, the big cases are pattern-of-practice cases. There have been no cases involving African-Americans filed in the last four years. In housing, the filings alleging racial discrimination under the Fair Housing Act are down to about a third of what they were six years ago. So there's a clear pattern across the board.

GORDON: Professor, what we're seeing--and pick up on your other point, but what we are also seeing within the division is what is being called relocation of longtime attorneys who traditionally did in fact go the route of the more traditional case studies of discrimination. If they are not on board, simpatico with the new movement, if you will, of the Bush administration, they've been relocated to less desirable areas. How much, again, do you believe that this is, in fact, a movement that has been calculated?

Prof. IFILL: I don't think there's any question that it's calculated. One could not randomly produce the kind of results that Bill Yeoman just described in terms of priorities. One could not move out strong and experienced attorneys in the Civil Rights Division and essentially put them out to pasture. One could not engage in the kind of even disrespect of career attorneys that I think has been the pattern in terms of the political appointees in this administration. There is no question that it's calculated. There's no question that it's an organized effort to shift the priorities in the Civil Rights Division in a way that falls, I think, outside the mandate of the Civil Rights Division as it was set out in 1957. I think it's an abdication of the responsibility of the Civil Rights Division.

You know, the federal government really had been, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the place to go. This was the organization that ensured that civil rights statutes were being enforced in the face of recalcitrant Southern jurisdictions. It's a tremendous, awesome and historic responsibility that the Civil Rights Division has undertaken since that period. And what we're seeing in this administration behind closed doors is an effort to essentially dismantle that, and it's quite, quite serious.

GORDON: Mr. Yeomans, let me ask you this, then: Is it disingenuous for President Bush to advocate the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and then see what essentially would be the dismantling of the collective body that enforces many of these acts?

Mr. YEOMANS: Well, I think we all have to be delighted that the president supports renewal of the Voting Rights Act. It's a very important statute, and we need it, but we do need to think about ways to make its enforcement effective, and I think that will be one of the challenges as we go forward.

I very much wanted to follow up on a point that Sherrilyn was making about the way career people have been targeted for punishment and have been really pushed out of the division. Experienced--real experts in civil rights enforcement have been given assignments that are simply unacceptable for a civil rights attorney and have been badgered and have left. Fully 20 percent of the attorneys left the division last year. And one of the tools that's been used is the assignment of immigration cases, which have nothing to do with civil rights. But for instance, in the appellate section alone, over 60 percent of the filings last year were in deportation matters. These are cases that come up through the Civil Division, have nothing to do with civil rights, and Civil Rights Division attorneys are required to argue that people should be sent out of the country. Now that's a huge diversion of resources that should be going to civil rights enforcement, and it's being used--those assignments are going to people who are disfavored.

GORDON: All right. Sherrilyn Ifill, with about a minute to go, what can be done, if you will--we've seen Arlen Specter step in and demand some explanation from the attorney general. Do you expect this to be stonewalled, or do you expect to hear from the attorney general's office?

Prof. IFILL: Well, I'll note that Senator Specter's letter to Alberto Gonzales includes a handwritten note at the end of it that says: Al, I'd like a reply ASAP. And that letter was sent November 22nd. We need to be vigilant about that reply, ensuring that Attorney General Gonzales provides that comprehensive reply to the Judiciary Committee.

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. IFILL: And then we need to be contacting our senators to demand that there be hearings on this and that these matters be made public so that we can see what the Civil Rights Division is doing on behalf of Americans.

GORDON: All right. Well, Will...

Mr. YEOMANS: I very much second that point. I think that...

GORDON: All right. Well, William Yeomans--I'm sorry.

Mr. YEOMANS: I'm sorry.

GORDON: We're just at that point, so we'll just have to leave it with you seconding that, and hopefully our listeners will take you up on that. William Yeomans, director of the programs for American Constitution Society, and Sherrilyn Ifill is associate professor of law at the University of Maryland. I thank you both for coming out in inclement weather and getting to us. Greatly appreciate it.

Prof. IFILL: Thanks for having me.

Mr. YEOMANS: Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.