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Bush administration blew off civil rights enforcement

This one is for those who naively believe that an entity called the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice should be in the business of enforcing the nation's civil rights laws. Under the late Bush administration, one had reason to doubt.

For years, critics blasted the Bush Justice Department for ideologically inspired hiring and firing decisions, unfair treatment of career (read: ideologically unreliable) staff members, and a selective approach to its enforcement responsibilities. Now a 180-page report prepared for Congress by the Government Accountability Office bears out many of those contentions.

The report, which assessed civil rights enforcement between 2001 and 2007, found big declines from the Clinton years in cases having to do with housing and job discrimination, and with disability rights. Thomas Perez, the new assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, summarized the findings to Congress in testimony this month.

Under the Bush administration, 324 housing discrimination cases were pursued, as opposed to 676 under Clinton. Under Bush, 126 disability lawsuits were filed, as opposed to 228 under Clinton. The Bush Justice Department filed only 15 cases under certain Voting Rights Act clauses, whereas under Clinton the department filed 35. (Some might find a certain consistency in that, given the legally murky circumstances under which Bush gained the presidency.)

The figure on housing cases is telling, as discriminatory lending was rampant during the subprime mortgage bubble, which inflated and burst during the Bush years. Perez testified that "despite considerable evidence of abusive, discriminatory behavior by lenders and underwriters," the Justice Department neglected to hold lenders accountable. (Perez is an Obama appointee, but he's worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations.) What use are the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act if we have an administration that feels no compulsion to enforce them? So what were honchos at Justice concerning themselves with? Purging the department's ranks, apparently. A full 70 percent of the career attorneys working in the Civil Rights Division in 2003 had left by 2007.

That's a lot of expertise in complicated case law walking out the door.

These were people who had worked at the department through Democratic and Republican administrations alike, and who found themselves "frozen out" of positions and generally frustrated in their efforts to carry out their responsibilities, Perez testified. Earlier in the year, another government report pointed out the brazen political shenanigans of one former deputy assistant attorney general in civil rights from 2003 to 2006.

Bradley Schlozman labeled attorneys applying for jobs as "right-thinking Americans" vs. "mold spores," "libs" and "commies," according to an earlier audit of his steaming e-mails. Schlozman became the poster boy for how the Justice Department became politicized. The new report was no cursory look-see. Taking a year and a half to complete, GAO officials combed through years of complaints, speeches, budgets, hearing statements, annual reports, computerized records and internal audits, and interviewed officials.

And that wasn't as easy as it sounds. Six years of internal audits about how cases were tracked as they worked through Justice Department channels are missing. As are official explanations on why supervisors — who by and large got appointed for party loyalty — decided to close cases that career civil rights attorneys recommended for follow-through.

The Bush administration didn't neuter the Civil Rights Division across the board. It actually did a more vigorous job prosecuting religious discrimination and (oddly enough) the language provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

But as Perez pointed out to Congress, the Justice Department isn't charged with picking and choosing willy-nilly which laws it will enforce and blow off. It must enforce all the laws under its purview. The nation's civil rights laws ought to hold no allegiance to political party.

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