With top lawyers and administrators resigning at an alarming rate, the scandal-plagued Justice Department is becoming an increasingly dysfunctional agency, a shell without credible leadership. Within that shell lies the rot of politicization, as evidence mounts that the Bush Administration has used the nation’s chief law enforcement agency to undermine not just civil liberties but democracy itself, and so it shall be as long as the primary architect of the department’s decline, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, remains at the helm. Yet while he is as discredited as any sitting Attorney General since the 1920s Teapot Dome scandal, Gonzales clings to the power afforded him by the President and by a standoff between a White House that will not admit its sins and a Congress that is only now beginning to address the crisis with the aggressiveness it demands.

Make no mistake, the crisis is real. Things have gotten so bad that, when asked whether he’d return to the department where he served as a senior official under John Ashcroft, Viet Dinh said, “I’d rather trade places with [accused “enemy combatant”] José Padilla.” Each day brings new revelations of abuses: using the authority of the department to achieve partisan goals, neglecting basic responsibilities to protect civil rights and civil liberties, blocking promotions of top lawyers because Vice President Cheney thought them more loyal to the Constitution than to the Bush agenda. Still Gonzales lingers, while capable lawyers leave–an exodus highlighted by the recent departure of Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. Senate Judiciary Committee member Chuck Schumer, who got a majority of senators to endorse an attempt to schedule an anti-Gonzales no-confidence vote on June 11, refers to McNulty as a conservative with a conscience “who at least tried to level with the committee.” His departure is a blow to the morale of career lawyers mired in a department increasingly defined by ideological extremism, incompetence and the paranoia of Gonzales. House Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers Jr. says, “McNulty’s resignation is a sign that top-level administration at the Justice Department may be crumbling under the pressure of ongoing revelations and what is yet to be disclosed.”

The gross affronts to the rule of law committed under Gonzales go far beyond the firings of US Attorneys considered insufficiently aggressive in their pursuit of bogus “voter fraud” claims, or even the evidence that prosecutors may have kept their jobs by going after Democratic voters and officials. The Brennan Center for Justice and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law have uncovered evidence of what they describe as “a much broader strategy on the part of the Administration to use federal agencies charged with protecting voting rights to promote voter suppression and influence election rules so as to gain partisan advantage in battleground states.” There is now a compelling case that the White House used the Justice Department’s Civil Rights and Criminal divisions and the Election Assistance Commission to create a false perception of widespread voter fraud to justify initiatives–stringent voter identification laws, crackdowns on voter registration drives and pre-election purges of eligible voters from the rolls–designed to disenfranchise the poor, minorities, students and seniors. But even as the evidence mounts, Bush continues to demand Senate approval of his nomination of a proponent of Justice’s voter suppression strategy, Hans von Spakovsky, to sit on the Federal Election Commission.

The voter suppression drive is just one example of the White House’s crude warping of the Justice Department’s mission. Its dark plotting includes a warrantless wiretapping scheme that, we now know, even Ashcroft found objectionable–and that a growing number of Congressional Republicans see as confirmation of the need for a new Attorney General. But Bush and Gonzales are operating on the theory that if they pretend to be the victims of partisan bickering on the Hill, they’ll be able to wait out the storm. Jerrold Nadler, who chairs the Constitution subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, frets about the lack of urgency regarding the “overwhelming obviousness of the fact that this entire warrantless wiretapping is illegal and the President and Attorney General are engaged in a criminal conspiracy.” Frustrated by Justice’s refusal to turn over internal legal opinions and other documents on the domestic surveillance program, Nadler is talking about subpoenas, while Conyers says, “It’s about time process kicks in somewhere around here.” The restlessness of Nadler, Conyers and Senate Judiciary chair Patrick Leahy is understandable. They are responsible legislators who have tried to work with Gonzales and the White House only to be constantly stonewalled. Clearly, the Congressional response must be adjusted.

One answer to the question of how to take the inquiry to the next level has come from the grassroots, in the form of a campaign by filmmaker Robert Greenwald and the activist group Democracy for America, demanding the impeachment of Gonzales. Other strategies are likely to come first, including the more aggressive use of subpoenas, like those issued June 13 to former White House counsel Harriet Miers and former political director Sara Taylor regarding their roles in the US Attorney firings. Leahy and Conyers will exhaust those tools before taking up impeachment. But no matter what steps are taken, the point has been reached where polite words must be replaced by bold demands. Allowing Gonzales to remain as Attorney General will only further undermine the government’s commitment to defend the right to vote and the right of Americans to be safe from illicit government spying–not to mention the prospect that the rule of law might eventually be reasserted at a department that still has “justice” in its name.