A collection of 23 progressive and public interest advocacy organizations and former White House ethics officer Norman Eisen penned a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week urging him not to let political considerations influence hiring decisions at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
The group stressed that federal law stipulates that hiring and other personnel decisions must be based solely on an individual’s merit.
“[The Civil Rights Division] has the awesome responsibility of enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws, and ensuring equal treatment and equal justice under the law for all Americans,” they wrote. “For that reason, the division’s career staff must not be politicized by the incoming Justice Department political appointees . . . and must be free to pursue the division’s mission without inappropriate political interference.”
The letter comes as a response to another open letter to Sessions, sent last month by 25 conservative politicians and advocacy groups, arguing that the Civil Rights Division has suffered from “ideological rot” and that it must “return to race-neutral Voting Rights Act enforcement.”
“During the Obama administration, the division served purely ideological ends with rigidity unmatched in other federal offices,” the conservatives wrote. “Entrenched federal bureaucrats jettisoned precepts like equal enforcement in favor of political and racialized dogmas with a zeal that risks litigation failure and invites court sanctions.”
Both letters argued for ensuring the Civil Rights Division is an apolitical organization, but they promote opposite solutions to achieve this goal. For progressives, it means protecting the rank and file from partisan hiring and assignment policies by political appointees. Those behind the March letter urge Sessions and his appointees to keep career attorneys and their ideologies in check.
Similarly, both groups cite previous administrations’ actions to support their theses. The conservative letter writers point to a 2013 inspector general report that suggested the Obama Justice Department’s requirement that Civil Rights Division hires have a “demonstrated commitment to civil rights” resulted “in the perception that attorney hires were only made from employees of left-wing groups.”
Meanwhile, the progressive groups warned Sessions against a repeat of the department's transgressions under President George W. Bush. In 2009, the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded that a political appointee in the division—former acting head Bradley Schlozman—illegally “considered political and ideological affiliations in hiring career attorneys and in other personnel actions affecting career attorneys,” although federal prosecutors ultimately declined to charge him with a crime.
In recent weeks, Sessions has ordered the Justice Department to review all existing consent decrees between the Civil Rights Division and local police departments. The Obama administration entered into several of these court-monitored arrangements following high-profile instances of police-involved shootings. And last week, a federal judge in Baltimore denied the Justice Department’s attempt to delay implementation of a new consent decree supported by city and police officials.