A long-awaited report from the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General issued last week sheds considerable light on the battles within the department’s voting section during the Bush and Obama administrations. The picture is not pretty. It is a tale of dysfunction and party polarization that could unfairly derail the nomination of the next secretary of labor and could even provide ammunition to Justice Antonin Scalia’s incendiary charge, made during the Supreme Court’s hearing on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act last month, that the civil rights law is a kind of “racial entitlement.” The sordid business raises serious questions about whether the whole model for the federal enforcement of voting rights should be reworked. The record of political bias in the Justice Department’s voting section during President George W. Bush’s administration is well-known. (The department’s voting section is charged with enforcing the Voting Rights Act and other federal voting laws.) We know from earlier reports that election officials, including Monica Goodling, went on a hiring binge to hire conservative attorneys to work in the section and, in the words of Bush appointee Bradley Schlozman, to “gerrymander all those crazy libs right out of the section.”
We know that senior Justice Department officials in the Bush era, including Hans von Spakovsky, overruled the recommendations of career civil-service attorneys in the section to approve Georgia’s controversial voter identification law. And we know that the Justice Department during the Bush era made decisions widely perceived to help Republicans, such as approving Texas’s mid-decade re-redistricting of its congressional seats to create more safe Republican seats, an effort partially overturned by the Supreme Court after finding it violated the Voting Rights Act.
But less well-known are the charges by conservatives that the voting rights section under the Obama administration has been just as biased in its hiring and decision-making—including charges that the Justice Department wrongfully dropped a case of voter intimidation against members of the New Black Panthers Party during the 2008 election because the perpetrators were African-American; that the department handled Freedom of Information Act requests from liberals more quickly and efficiently than those from conservatives; and that conservatives were disfavored in hiring and promotion by the new bosses, including the head of the civil rights division, Thomas Perez, who President Obama nominated Monday to serve as the next secretary of labor.