RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold confirmation hearings today for a new leader of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. As some career attorneys there describe it, Wan Kim stands to inherit one of the most unpleasant work environments in the division's history. Spokespeople at the Civil Rights Division say that is simply not true. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO reporting:
Richard Ugelow worked in the Civil Rights Division for nearly 30 years. Now that he's left, he has some things to say.
Mr. RICHARD UGELOW (Civil Rights Division): It was the best place in the government to work. It is not the best place in the government by any stretch of the imagination today.
SHAPIRO: There's now a roster of people, like Richard Ugelow, who have recently left Civil Rights disappointed after working there for decades under Republicans and Democrats. Joe Rich retired last spring after 37 years in Civil Rights. He says in the months leading up to his departure, politically appointed leaders in effect barred Rich and his colleagues from policy discussions.
Mr. JOE RICH (Retired, Civil Rights Division): There was always a good level of give and take between career and political people, debating issues, discussing recommendations, discussing strategies. And the level of that type of important give and take, crucial to law enforcement, had broken down so much, in my judgment, that the effectiveness that I had and that I felt the career people generally have had been lost.
SHAPIRO: Justice Department spokesman Eric Holland disputes that account.
Mr. ERIC HOLLAND (Justice Department Spokesman): I see a great team effort and our accomplishments prove that we're working hand in hand. We're getting the job done.
SHAPIRO: The Civil Rights Division is a political lightning rod. It handles some of the most controversial subjects in the country, from school desegregation to voting rights to housing discrimination. And as decisions are made on who might be sued for violating civil rights laws, there's typically a back and forth between career and political attorneys. Deval Patrick, who ran the division under President Clinton, says each brings a different strength to the table.
Mr. DEVAL PATRICK (Former Civil Rights Division Leader): The career professionals have the institutional memory. The political appointees bring the president's agenda to bear. So the best partnership is one where the political appointees are focusing on the president's agenda but using the resources of the career professionals to be as effective as possible.
SHAPIRO: Stanley Pottinger ran the Civil Rights Division under President Nixon. He says tension between career and political lawyers is typical, but it's usually sorted out through overt debate.
Mr. STANLEY POTTINGER (Former Civil Rights Division Leader): If there is a breakdown in communication between the assistant attorney general's office, who heads the division and the career lawyers, that would be a bad sign.
SHAPIRO: DOJ spokesman Holland says there is no breakdown. He points to accomplishments in disability rights, human trafficking prosecutions and multilingual access to voting booths as evidence of how well Civil Rights is working.
Mr. HOLLAND: I personally prefer to let the accomplishments of the attorneys in the division, both careers and appointees working hand in hand as a unit, speak loudly.
SHAPIRO: Bill Yeomans, who recently left the Civil Rights Division after 25 years, does not dispute the division's accomplishments in the areas Holland mentions, but he says...
Mr. BILL YEOMANS (Former Civil Rights Division Member): It's hard to go beyond those and say that in any other area, this Civil Rights Division has increased enforcement and that enforcement has not declined in almost every other area.
SHAPIRO: Bob Kengel agrees.
Mr. BOB KENGEL: I was a deputy chief in the voting section until April of this year.
SHAPIRO: He says the Civil Rights Division has become more interested in politics than it ever was before during his 20 years there. To make his point, he turns to some documents. One of them is a letter that the chief of the voting section wrote to an official in Franklin County, Ohio.
Mr. KENGEL: As you may recall, there were complaints about insufficient voting resources in particular locations. And these letters were in response to those.
SHAPIRO: Civil rights groups had alleged that voters in predominantly black areas of Ohio were not provided enough voting machines during the 2004 presidential election. The Justice Department investigated.
Mr. KENGEL: What struck me about these letters is the extraordinary extent to which they read like defense briefs for the counties. In my experience, when the voting section has conducted an investigation, we would say, you know, we've reviewed the evidence and it doesn't appear to be a violation. These go much further than that.
SHAPIRO: Kengel says in 20 years at the voting section, he's never seen a letter like this.
Mr. KENGEL: These letters are fairly extraordinary and if there are any other examples from the past that were similar, I'd like to see them.
Mr. HOLLAND: In fact, I have here a letter, and I'll make you a copy...
SHAPIRO: DOJ spokesman Holland has a letter from two years ago that the voting rights section sent to the city attorney of Vista, California.
Mr. HOLLAND: ...and it provided an explanation of why the department was closing an investigation under the Voting Rights Act.
SHAPIRO: The letter is signed by Joe Rich, who was then chief of the voting rights section. Rich now works for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law which has sued the Ohio county where the Justice Department found no voting rights violations.
Mr. RICH: This letter compared to the Ohio letter is--I think they're two different types of letters. There's never been a letter that I've seen like the Ohio letter where we lay out in very great detail what we found in the county and the reasons that we were closing it.
SHAPIRO: The Vista letter is three paragraphs long; the Ohio letter is 12. DOJ spokesman Holland does not see any fundamental difference.
Mr. HOLLAND: Each investigation is different. We solely gave an explanation as to how we came to our decision.
SHAPIRO: While the employees who have left after decades are concerned about short-term civil rights enforcement, they're more worried about the long-term impact of a mass departure. Richard Ugelow says nearly all the career attorneys he worked with in the employment litigation section have now retired.
Mr. UGELOW: You need people who are dedicated to enforcing the laws and who have the institutional knowledge. The institutional knowledge is leaving the Department of Justice and that can't be good.
SHAPIRO: And new lawyers are being hired in a different way than they were before. Here's how Holland of the DOJ explains it.
Mr. HOLLAND: Former Attorney General Ashcroft centralized the attorney hiring process to include more employees in the decision-making and to make the interview schedule more accommodating for applicants.
SHAPIRO: Bill Yeomans served on the hiring committee for many years before the system changed in 2002. And he describes the change differently.
Mr. YEOMENS: The hiring became a process that was entirely in the hands of the political leadership. And looking at the people who've been hired, they are certainly being hired because they come with an ideological perspective.
Mr. HOLLAND: Absolutely not.
SHAPIRO: DOJ spokesman Eric Holland says there is still a role for career lawyers in the hiring process along with political appointees.
Mr. HOLLAND: What we're looking for is quality, not ideology.
SHAPIRO: Some civil rights groups have raised these concerns with the Senate Judiciary Committee. They expect to hear more about them at the confirmation hearing for the designated civil rights chief this afternoon. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: You can read the letters that the voting rights section sent to Ohio and California at npr.org.
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