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A Times Editorial

Justice Department misdeeds hurt us all

The way screening committees at the Justice Department combed resumes for any hints of "leftist" leanings, you would think we were back in the days of A. Mitchell Palmer's Red Scare. Any minor association an applicant had with a progressive cause would doom his chances for consideration, regardless of qualifications, a new report finds. While this is disturbing news, it is hardly surprising. The Bush administration has consistently chosen to put partisan interests ahead of the public good.

It is illegal to use ideological or political factors in deciding who should be hired for career legal positions in the Justice Department. The reason for this is obvious: The public's respect for the law would be undermined if its enforcement were politicized.

But a newly released joint report by the department's inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility finds that the department disregarded civil service law and its own guidelines by imposing a political litmus test in hiring, under both Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales.

In an honors program used to recruit top new lawyers into department career paths, as well as a summer internship program, stellar lawyers were routinely passed over in favor of lesser candidates with the right ideology.

The statistics speak for themselves. In 2002, after Ashcroft put political staff in charge of hiring decisions that had previously been largely handled by career lawyers, 91 percent of the conservative-leaning candidates for the honors program were approved, while liberal-leaning candidates had a 20 percent approval rate. Lopsided statistics similarly appear in 2006, under Gonzales' team.

But beyond the raw numbers, the report documents that candidates were rejected for things like having written an opinion piece opposing sections of the USA Patriot Act, or having worked for Planned Parenthood or any environmental, civil liberties or civil rights organization. Some were even declined for having clerked for a judge who had liberal leanings.

This was especially true under Gonzales, who had one of the more unremarkable tenures of any attorney general, marked primarily by his enthusiastic willingness to use the department to service the interests of President Bush.

The partisan vetting went so far that applicants were suspect just for having successfully graduated from an Ivy League school, as such schools were seen as having a liberal bent. Academic excellence took a backseat to ideological purity.

The report says flat-out that certain department officials engaged in illegal acts by discriminating against highly qualified applicants on political grounds. Those who deserve the most blame have already left the department, but anyone who remains on staff who had a hand in this ugly business should be handed their walking papers.

Meanwhile, expect more to come on the mendacity and partisanship of the nation's chief law enforcement agency. The department's internal oversight offices are continuing to probe its politicization, including the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. Remember that Monica Goodling, a former department official, testified before Congress last year that her personnel decisions "crossed the line" by taking political considerations into account when hiring some immigration judges. This too is being investigated.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey responded to the internal report by saying that it is "unacceptable" to take politics into account when hiring. That's nice rhetoric and we hope he means it, since his two predecessors certainly didn't. To his credit, Mukasey has put some safeguards into effect, but the report says more needs to be done.

The damage that this administration has done to the good offices of government continues to mount. One day, when the final tally is taken, it very well may be remembered as the worst in history.

Justice Department misdeeds hurt us all 06/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 9:33pm]
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