Civil rights under Bush: It's a conservative Christian thing

How the Bush administration has transformed the Justice Department's Civil Rights Department into a force for conservative legal views.

Published July 24, 2006 4:50PM (EDT)

It's great that the president is acknowledging that "many African-Americans distrust" the Republican Party. It would be even better if he understood why.

The Boston Globe's Charlie Savage can help.

The last we heard from the Savage, he was shining a light on the way in which George W. Bush uses signing statements as a sort of veto lite for legislation he doesn't like but lacks the political will to veto. Now Savage is back with a new investigative report, this one exposing the way that the Bush administration has quietly gone about transforming the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division into a force for conservative legal views.

As Savage writes, prior administrations acknowledged the Civil Rights Division's need for political neutrality by putting panels of career attorneys, rather than political appointees, in charge of reviewing job applications and making recommendations for hires. John Ashcroft eliminated those panels in 2002, Savage says, allowing Bush administration political appointees to oversee hiring decisions themselves.

The results are about what you'd expect: The administration has stuffed "the permanent ranks with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights." The numbers are striking. In the two years before Ashcroft changed the hiring procedures, 77 percent of the lawyers who got jobs in the Civil Rights Division had civil rights experience, Savage found. In the three years after, only 42 percent of them did -- and more than half of those "gained their experience either by defending employers against discrimination lawsuits or by fighting against race-conscious policies," Savage found.

So what kind of experience did the new breed of lawyers bring? Of 45 lawyers hired since 2003, 11 lawyers were members of the Federalist Society; seven were members of the Republican National Lawyers Association; six claimed membership in conservative Christian groups; and several more worked previously for conservatives like Ken Starr, Ed Meese and Trent Lott, Savage found.

What does it all mean? That's not so surprising, either. "The division is bringing fewer voting rights and employment cases involving systematic discrimination against African-Americans," Savage said, "and more alleging reverse discrimination against whites and religious discrimination against Christians."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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