WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is quietly remaking the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, filling the permanent ranks with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights, according to job application materials obtained by the Globe.
The documents show that only 42 percent of the lawyers hired since 2003, after the administration changed the rules to give political appointees more influence in the hiring process, have civil rights experience. In the two years before the change, 77 percent of those who were hired had civil rights backgrounds.
In an acknowledgment of the department's special need to be politically neutral, hiring for career jobs in the Civil Rights Division under all recent administrations, Democratic and Republican, had been handled by civil servants -- not political appointees.
But in the fall of 2002, then-attorney general John Ashcroft changed the procedures. The Civil Rights Division disbanded the hiring committees made up of veteran career lawyers.
For decades, such committees had screened thousands of resumes, interviewed candidates, and made recommendations that were only rarely rejected.
Now, hiring is closely overseen by Bush administration political appointees to Justice, effectively turning hundreds of career jobs into politically appointed positions.
The profile of the lawyers being hired has since changed dramatically, according to the resumes of successful applicants to the voting rights, employment litigation, and appellate sections. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Globe obtained the resumes among hundreds of pages of hiring data from 2001 to 2006.
Hires with traditional civil rights backgrounds -- either civil rights litigators or members of civil rights groups -- have plunged. Only 19 of the 45 lawyers hired since 2003 in those three sections were experienced in civil rights law, and of those, nine gained their experience either by defending employers against discrimination lawsuits or by fighting against race-conscious policies.
Meanwhile, conservative credentials have risen sharply. Since 2003 the three sections have hired 11 lawyers who said they were members of the conservative Federalist Society. Seven hires in the three sections are listed as members of the Republican National Lawyers Association, including two who volunteered for Bush-Cheney campaigns.
Several new hires worked for prominent conservatives, including former Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr, former attorney general Edwin Meese, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, and Judge Charles Pickering. And six listed Christian organizations that promote socially conservative views.
The changes in those three sections are echoed to varying degrees throughout the Civil Rights Division, according to current and former staffers.
At the same time, the kinds of cases the Civil Rights Division is bringing have undergone a shift. The division is bringing fewer voting rights and employment cases involving systematic discrimination against African-Americans, and more alleging reverse discrimination against whites and religious discrimination against Christians.
"There has been a sea change in the types of cases brought by the division, and that is not likely to change in a new administration because they are hiring people who don't have an expressed interest in traditional civil rights enforcement," said Richard Ugelow, a 29-year career veteran who left the division in 2002.
No 'litmus test' claimed
The Bush administration is not the first to seek greater control over the Civil Rights Division. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan tried to limit the division's efforts to enforce school-desegregation busing and affirmative action. But neither Nixon nor Reagan pushed political loyalists deep in the permanent bureaucracy, longtime employees say.
The Bush administration denies that its changes to the hiring procedures have political overtones. Cynthia Magnuson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the division had no "litmus test" for hiring. She insisted that the department hired only "qualified attorneys."
Magnuson also objected to measuring civil rights experience by participation in organizations devoted to advancing traditional civil rights causes. She noted that many of the division's lawyers had been clerks for federal judges, where they "worked on litigation involving constitutional law, which is obviously relevant to a certain degree."
Other defenders of the Bush administration say there is nothing improper about the winner of a presidential election staffing government positions with like-minded officials. And, they say, the old career staff at the division was partisan in its own way -- an entrenched bureaucracy of liberals who did not support the president's view of civil rights policy.
Robert Driscoll, a deputy assistant attorney general over the division from 2001 to 2003, said many of the longtime career civil rights attorneys wanted to bring big cases on behalf of racial groups based on statistical disparities in hiring, even without evidence of intentional discrimination. Conservatives, he said, prefer to focus on cases that protect individuals from government abuses of power.
Hiring only lawyers from civil rights groups would "set the table for a permanent left-wing career class," Driscoll said.
But Jim Turner, who worked for the division from 1965 to 1994 and was the top-ranked professional in the division for the last 25 years of his career, said that hiring people who are interested in enforcing civil rights laws is not the same thing as trying to achieve a political result through hiring.
Most people interested in working to enforce civil rights laws happen to be liberals, Turner said, but Congress put the laws on the books so that they would be enforced. "To say that the Civil Rights Division had a special penchant for hiring liberal lawyers is twisting things," he said.
Jon Greenbaum, who was a career attorney in the voting rights section from 1997 to 2003, said that since the hiring change, candidates with conservative ties have had an advantage.
"The clear emphasis has been to hire individuals with conservative credentials," he said. "If anything, a civil rights background is considered a liability."
But Roger Clegg, who was a deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights during the Reagan administration, said that the change in career hiring is appropriate to bring some "balance" to what he described as an overly liberal agency.
"I don't think there is anything sinister about any of this. . . . You are not morally required to support racial preferences just because you are working for the Civil Rights Division," Clegg said.
Many lawyers in the division, who spoke on condition of anonymity, describe a clear shift in agenda accompanying the new hires. As The Washington Post reported last year, division supervisors overruled the recommendations of longtime career voting-rights attorneys in several high-profile cases, including whether to approve a Texas redistricting plan and whether to approve a Georgia law requiring voters to show photographic identification.
In addition, many experienced civil rights lawyers have been assigned to spend much of their time defending deportation orders rather than pursuing discrimination claims. Justice officials defend that practice, saying that attorneys throughout the department are sharing the burden of a deportation case backlog.
As a result, staffers say, morale has plunged and experienced lawyers are leaving the division. Last year, the administration offered longtime civil rights attorneys a buyout. Department figures show that 63 division attorneys left in 2005 -- nearly twice the average annual number of departures since the late 1990s.
At a recent NAACP hearing on the state of the Civil Rights Division, David Becker, who was a voting-rights section attorney for seven years before accepting the buyout offer, warned that the personnel changes threatened to permanently damage the nation's most important civil rights watchdog.
"Even during other administrations that were perceived as being hostile to civil rights enforcement, career staff did not leave in numbers approaching this level," Becker said. "In the place of these experienced litigators and investigators, this administration has, all too often, hired inexperienced ideologues, virtually none of which have any civil rights or voting rights experiences."
Dates from '57 law
Established in 1957 as part of the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Division enforces the nation's antidiscrimination laws.
The 1957 law and subsequent civil rights acts directed the division to file lawsuits against state and local governments, submit "friend-of-the-court" briefs in other discrimination cases, and review changes to election laws and redistricting to make sure they will not keep minorities from voting.
The division is managed by a president's appointees -- the assistant attorney general for civil rights and his deputies -- who are replaced when a new president takes office.
Beneath the political appointees, most of the work is carried out by a permanent staff of about 350 lawyers. They take complaints, investigate problems, propose lawsuits, litigate cases, and negotiate settlements.
Until recently, career attorneys also played an important role in deciding whom to hire when vacancies opened up in their ranks.
"We were looking for a strong academic record, for clerkships, and for evidence of an interest in civil rights enforcement," said William Yeomans, who worked for the division for 24 years, leaving in 2005.
Civil Rights Division supervisors of both parties almost always accepted the career attorneys' hiring recommendations, longtime staffers say. Charles Cooper, a former deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Reagan administration, said the system of hiring through committees of career professionals worked well.
"There was obviously oversight from the front office, but I don't remember a time when an individual went through that process and was not accepted," Cooper said. "I just don't think there was any quarrel with the quality of individuals who were being hired. And we certainly weren't placing any kind of political litmus test on . . . the individuals who were ultimately determined to be best qualified."
But during the fall 2002 hiring cycle, the Bush administration changed the rules. Longtime career attorneys say there was never an official announcement. The hiring committee simply was not convened, and eventually its members learned that it had been disbanded.
Driscoll, the former Bush administration appointee, said then-Attorney General John Ashcroft changed hiring rules for the entire Justice Department, not just the Civil Rights Division. But career officials say that the change had a particularly strong impact in the Civil Rights Division, where the potential for political interference is greater than in divisions that enforce less controversial laws.
Joe Rich, who joined the division in 1968 and who was chief of the voting rights section until he left last year, said that the change reduced career attorneys' input on hiring decisions to virtually nothing. Once the political appointees screened resumes and decided on a finalist for a job in his section, Rich said, they would invite him to sit in on the applicant's final interview but they wouldn't tell him who else had applied, nor did they ask his opinion about whether to hire the attorney.
The changes extended to the hiring of summer interns.
Danielle Leonard, who was one of the last lawyers to be hired into the voting rights section under the old system, said she volunteered to look through internship applications in 2002.
Leonard said she went through the resumes, putting Post-It Notes on them with comments, until her supervisor told her that career staff would no longer be allowed to review the intern resumes. Leonard removed her Post-Its from the resumes and a political aide took them away.
Leonard said she quit a few months later, having stayed in what she had thought would be her "dream job" for less than a year, because she was frustrated and demoralized by the direction the division was taking.
The academic credentials of the lawyers hired into the division also underwent a shift at this time, the documents show. Attorneys hired by the career hiring committees largely came from Eastern law schools with elite reputations, while a greater proportion of the political appointees' hires instead attended Southern and Midwestern law schools with conservative reputations.
The average US News & World Report ranking for the law school attended by successful applicants hired in 2001 and 2002 was 34, while the average law school rank dropped to 44 for those hired after 2003.
Driscoll, the former division chief-of-staff, insisted that everyone he personally had hired was well qualified. And, he said, the old hiring committees' prejudice in favor of highly ranked law schools had unfairly blocked many qualified applicants.
"They would have tossed someone who was first in their class at the University of Kentucky Law School, whereas we'd say, hey, he's number one in his class, let's interview him," Driscoll said.
Learning from others
The Bush administration's effort to assert greater control over the Civil Rights Division is the latest chapter in a long-running drama between the agency and conservative presidents.
Nixon tried unsuccessfully to delay implementation of school desegregation plans. Reagan reversed the division's position on the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory private schools and set a policy of opposing school busing and racial quotas.
Still, neither Nixon nor Reagan changed the division's procedures for hiring career staff, meaning that career attorneys who were dedicated to enforcing traditional civil rights continued to fill the ranks.
Yeomans said he believes the current administration learned a lesson from Nixon's and Reagan's experiences: To make changes permanent, it is necessary to reshape the civil rights bureaucracy.
"Reagan had tried to bring about big changes in civil rights enforcement and to pursue a much more conservative approach, but it didn't stick," Yeomans said. "That was the goal here -- to leave behind a bureaucracy that approached civil rights the same way the political appointees did."