How To Fix the Civil Rights Division

Obama Law

How To Fix the Civil Rights Division

Obama Law

How To Fix the Civil Rights Division
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Dec. 9 2008 11:49 AM

Obama Law


I was in the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice from 1968 to 2005, and from 1999 to 2005 I was chief of the Voting Section, and so I'll focus on that aspect of the DoJ.

How to reinvigorate the Department of Justice and, more specifically, the Civil Rights Division? Initially, it is important as soon as possible to finalize and release the fourth report concerning the Civil Rights Division, by the department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility. This report is about the politicization of the Civil Rights Division. The new leadership of the division needs the result of this review. If there are ongoing criminal investigations of former division leadership, then this may affect the timing of the release. But since formal complaints made about the Civil Rights Division's leadership and Voting Section management have been pending for more than three years, it is time to make the information public.


The new division leadership, when in place, needs to address the following:

The hiring process in the Civil Rights Division: It was badly politicized from 2002 through 2007. I recommend:

  1. Publicly announcing hiring procedures as soon as they are formulated
  2. Returning to the pre-2002 system for the DoJ honors program for hiring lawyers out of law school. Division line attorneys do the initial interviewing and then make recommendations to section chiefs and division management. Section chiefs should make recommendations, too. Then the final decision should be made by the assistant attorney general for civil rights. For lateral hires to fill vacancies caused by attrition, pre-2002 procedures should be reinstituted. At that time, each section typically created a hiring committee of line attorneys and section management that selected persons to be interviewed and made recommendations to division management. Division management should be able to request persons to be considered by the section people to be interviewed. If division management wants to do second interviews of candidates, that can be made part of the process.
  3. The new hiring procedures should be posted on the division's Web site for transparency.

Morale: Dahlia, you asked how bad a morale problem the DoJ has. To find out, we need a careful review of each section of the Civil Rights Division, as soon as possible. The review should include the effect of section management on line attorneys and administrators. Any changes in section management that follow should be done section by section, with emphasis on management performance and impact on morale.

Resetting priorities. My partial list includes the following:

1.  Cases attacking discrimination against racial minorities
2.  Fair-lending enforcement, focusing on charges of discrimination in the subprime lending market
3.  Increase cases that address a widespread pattern or practice of discrimination, especially in employment, voting, and housing
4.  More amicus work at the trial and appellate levels
5.  Police-misconduct cases in the criminal and special-litigation sections
6.  Guidance to school districts to address the Supreme Court's 2007 ruling in the Seattle-Louisville schools cases
7.  On the legislative front, voting legislation introduced last year to address deceptive voting practices. In addition, investigation and formulation of a universal voter-registration law should be a high priority.
8.  Hate crimes legislation previously introduced in Congress

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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.