Research support for this article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
In 2002 conservative political journalist John Miller wrote an extraordinary call to arms in which he declared open season on the civil rights division of the Justice Department. This was the division that, for close to fifty years, had been dedicated to erasing the legacy of Jim Crow and protecting the rights of minority voters.
“There may be no part of the federal government where liberalism is more deeply entrenched,” he fulminated in the National Review. Then he sketched out how conservatives could reclaim it for themselves. His jeremiad was headlined Fort Liberalism: Can Justice’s Civil Rights Division Be Bushified?
Six years on, we know the answer painfully well. What makes Miller’s piece so extraordinary is that nearly every one of his proposals was implemented. “Republicans should work to gain more control over the civil rights division and its renegade lawyers,” he wrote. Check. “The administration should permanently replace those it believes it can’t trust,” including senior career section chiefs. Check. “Republican political appointees should seize control of the hiring process.” Again, check.
To the extent that Miller injected any note of caution, his prescription was exceeded. “They [Republican political appointees] don’t need to make sure every new lawyer is a member of the Federalist Society,” he suggested. “Simply hiring competent professionals who don’t come from left-wing organizations would be an enormous improvement.” In fact, the ultraconservative Federalist Society quickly became a favored recruiting ground–twenty-seven out of twenty-nine members who applied in 2002 were granted interviews, according to a report from Justice’s inspector general–while lawyers affiliated with more progressive organizations were roundly snubbed.
At the same time, Republicans at the Justice Department became so zealous in the pursuit of their political aims that competence went out the window, along with any sense of caution. Instead of simply correcting a perceived imbalance, they ripped up the professional integrity of the department like no presidential administration in memory and hobbled its much-prized independence–in the civil rights division and just about everywhere else.
A startling flurry of inspector general reports–including one released September 29 focusing on the US Attorney firing scandal–along with the testimony of former Justice staffers interviewed at length by The Nation, paint a detailed picture of how a once-proud government department came to teeter on the brink of a nervous breakdown. With the presidential election looming, the consequences of pervasive politicization could be profound, as the department’s rules of engagement in the electoral process have been completely remade to allow a much greater degree of direct interference.