LAST YEAR, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had to resign after he could not explain why the Justice Department had fired nine US attorneys, all Bush appointees, who had prosecuted Republican officials or declined to pursue flimsy cases against Democrats. Now it turns out that the politicization of the Justice Department under President Bush went even deeper. A report by the departments inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility finds that officials used political litmus tests in the hiring of staff lawyers and even interns.
According to the report, applicants for the departments entry-level honors program which attracts highly qualified lawyers from top schools would get tossed in the reject pile if they had links to organizations like The Nature Conservancy or the Battered Immigrant Women Project. One rejected applicant was a high-ranking law graduate who had written a paper on the detention of people under the USA Patriot Act. By the same token, department officials went out of their way to hire members of the conservative Federalist Society. Investigators found e-mails from officials clearly indicating political bias in hiring.
Under civil service law and Justice Department guidelines, it is illegal to let political ideology or affiliation affect hiring decisions. A president and attorney general can fill top positions with political appointees, but the career civil service lawyers who do much of the work in the departments divisions, from civil rights to antitrust, are supposed to be chosen strictly on their merits. That professionalism has helped the department maintain high standards from one administration to the next.
When the history of the Bush administration is written, the politicization of the Justice Department will be a dark chapter. Congress is still trying to find out if orders for the US attorney firings came from then-White House aides Karl Rove and Harriet Miers. The new report shows that making the Justice Department a wing of the Republican Party had become routine under Gonzales and his predecessor, John Ashcroft.
The current attorney general, Michael Mukasey, says he will follow the inspector generals recommendations for improving the hiring process. But the damage has been done. Michael Bromwich, who served in Justice under President Reagan and was inspector general under President Clinton, said: Its a corruption of the process of bringing the best and the brightest into the department. Instead, the department will have to make do with the most ideologically pure.