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Justice Dept. rights division faces upheaval

Lawyers leaving over shift in roles

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which has enforced antidiscrimination laws for nearly half a century, is in the midst of an upheaval that has driven away dozens of veteran lawyers and that has damaged morale for many of those who remain, according to former and current employees.

Almost 20 percent of the division's lawyers left in fiscal 2005, in part because of a buyout program that some lawyers say was aimed at pushing out those who did not share the Bush administration's views on civil rights laws. Longtime career litigators said political appointees have cut them out of hiring and major policy decisions, including approvals of disputed GOP redistricting plans in Mississippi and Texas.

In the meantime, prosecutions for the kinds of racial and gender discrimination crimes traditionally handled by the division have declined by 40 percent over the past five years, according to department statistics.

Dozens of lawyers are handling appeals of deportation orders and other immigration matters instead of civil rights cases.

The Justice Department and its supporters strongly dispute the complaints. A department spokesman, Eric Holland, noted that the overall attrition rate during the Bush administration, about 13 percent, was not significantly higher than the 11 percent average in the last five years under President Clinton.

A quarter of those cases were related to human-trafficking crimes, which were made easier to prosecute under legislation passed at the end of the Clinton administration and which account for a growing proportion of the division's caseload.

''This administration has continued the robust and vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws," Holland wrote in an e-mail statement, adding later: ''These accomplishments could not have been achieved without teamwork between career attorneys and political appointees."

The attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, the first Hispanic to hold the job, named civil rights enforcement as one of his priorities after taking office this year.

Although relations between the career and political ranks have been strained throughout the Justice Department over the past five years, the level of conflict has been particularly high in civil rights, according to several current and former employees.

The debate over civil rights flared in the Senate in recent weeks after the nomination of Wan Kim, who was confirmed Nov. 4 as the assistant attorney general for the division and is the third person to hold that job during the Bush administration. Kim has been the civil rights deputy for the past two years.

There were no serious objections to Kim's nomination, but Democrats, including Senators Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, said they were concerned about serious morale and enforcement problems in the division.

''Its enforcement of civil rights over the past five years has been negligent," Kennedy said. ''Mr. Kim has promised to look closely at these issues and to increase the division's enforcement, and I believed he should be given a chance to turn the division around."

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