Obama Law

Fleeing Civil Rights Lawyers
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Dec. 10 2008 12:52 PM

Obama Law

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First, in further response to Dahlia's question about morale, I want to emphasize that there is no question that morale in the Civil Rights Division was badly damaged during the Bush administration. When I testified before the House judiciary committee in March 2007, I noted that since April 2005, when I left the voting section, of the five career attorneys in section leadership (the chief and four deputy chiefs), only one deputy chief remained. In the same time period, 20 of the 35 attorneys in the section had either left DoJ, transferred to other sections (in some cases involuntarily), or gone on details. Similarly, since 2002 in the employment section, the section chief and three of the four deputy chiefs had been involuntarily reassigned or left, and 21 of the 32 attorneys had either left or transferred. The chiefs for the housing and criminal sections were involuntarily removed in 2003 and 2005. It is my understanding that the Civil Rights Division lost more than half of its career attorneys (nonpolitical hires) during the Bush administration.

Such loss of experienced staff tells only part of the story. From the outset, there was a conscious effort to wall off career managers and attorneys in the Civil Rights Division from participation in decision-making. Perhaps the most astounding example was instructions from political appointees to appellate section attorneys not to discuss their briefs with trial section staff about a case the trial lawyers were handling. The damage to effective law enforcement is obvious.  Brian Landsberg, a former career attorney now at McGeorge Law School, explains the importance of close working relations between political and career staff in his book Enforcing Civil Rights. He writes that the design of the department "requires cooperation between the two groups to achieve the proper balance between carrying out administration policy and carrying out core law enforcement duties. Where one group shuts itself out from influence by the other, the department's effectiveness suffers."

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During the Bush administration, such crucial communication was consciously discouraged. One of the first jobs of the incoming division management will be to address this.



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Joseph Rich is the special counsel for federal agencies and litigation at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. He worked in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division from 1968-2005, serving as chief of the voting section for the last six years of his tenure there.

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