Initial Thoughts on the Inspector General Report on the Voting Rights Section of DOJ

I have now had a chance to give an initial read to the mammoth report of the IG on the voting rights section and I have some thoughts which could change upon closer scrutiny (news reports at NYT, LAT).  Here are my takeaways from the report.

1. With all the controversies over politicized decisionmaking at the Justice Department–from the Bush Administration DOJ’s preclearance of the Georgia voter id law and Texas mid-decade redistricting to the Obama Administration DOJ’s handling of the New Black Panthers Party controversy—the IG finds no proof that either administration made improper enforcement decisions or administered the law unfairly. The controversial results in the cases were explainable by Democrats’ and Republicans’ different ideological goals and emphases, as well as discretionary enforcement and litigation choices, well within the policy-making powers of different administrations. In this era of the voting wars, it is unrealistic to expect that differing views over voting issues wouldn’t spill over into DOJ handling of such issues.  The most inflammatory charges made in recent years by conservatives about the Obama DOJ’s handling of voting rights matters—such as that the department responded more quickly to liberals’ FOIA requests to the department and that Obama hiring for the section was ideologically motivated—were found to be unsupported. (The DOJ did find that the neutral criteria used for hiring, such as looking for candidates with experience with voting rights cases, skewed hiring towards liberals. The IG suggests changing the criteria to avoid an appearance of bias.) It is worth emphasizing from this section that Abby Thernstom has been proven right once again about the New Black Panthers Party case: really small potatoes.

2. The sharp divisions on ideological grounds over the handling of these claims led to a poisonous atmosphere at DOJ’s voting section.  From Bradley Schlozman’s statements to “gerrymander the libs” out of the section, to email references to form DOJ Section Chief Chris Coates as a “klansman,” the last decade has seen ideological warfare in the voting section. The report gives numerous examples of liberals criticizing conservatives and conservatives criticizing liberals, of nastiness, of comparisons to Nazis, to anonymous nasty postings by Dept. employees on various blogs, and to a general culture of mistrust which developed between the two sides within the agency.  From my initial read, it seems like conservatives in the department bore most of the personal attacks from career voting rights attorneys who are mostly liberal.  The report concludes with remarks about the poisonous partisan atmosphere at the DOJ, and says that the culture of the section needs to change.

3. It is tough to draw the line between political appointees of the department improperly using ideology as a criterion for making hiring and firing decisions and the appointees making sure that employees are on board in furthering the goals and emphases of the administration. The IG is critical of how Republican appointees treated Joe Rich and how Democratic appointees treated Chris Coates.  I’m not sure that the two cases are equivalent–I’d recommend that readers look at the report for themselves–but the IG report seems to be trying to make the case that the two administrations were equally at fault on this score.  So when Coates, a conservative, is excluded from sensitive meetings by political DOJ officials (I presume here over what to do if the Supreme Court strikes section 5 of the Voting Rights Act), was that proper or improper?  Again, readers should read and judge for themselves

4. One of the sharpest divisions between liberals and conservatives was over whether protections of the voting rights act should apply to white voters—either as a matter of legal interpretation of the Act or administration priorities.  Consider these two passages from the report giving views within the department:

Coates and other career attorneys told the OIG that they were aware of comments by some Voting Section attorneys indicating that the Noxubee case should have never been brought because White citizens were not historical victims of discrimination or could fend for themselves. Indeed, two career Voting Section attorneys told us that, even if the Department had infinite resources, they still would not have supported the filing of the Noxubee case because it was contrary to the purpose of the Voting Rights Act, which was to ensure that minorities who had historically been the victims of discrimination could exercise the right to vote….

Many of those individuals told the OIG that they believed that the reason the voting-rights laws were enacted was to protect historic victims of discrimination and therefore the Section should prioritize its resources accordingly. Additionally, some of these individuals, including one current manager, admitted to us that, while they believed that the text of the Voting Rights Act is race-neutral and applied to all races, they did not believe the Voting Section should pursue cases on behalf of White victims. Indeed, our review of Voting Section e-mails revealed widespread and vehement opposition among career employees to the prosecution of the Noxubee matter precisely because the defendants were Black.

5. Whether or not the Supreme Court strikes section 5 of the VRA this summer, there needs to be some rethinking of the mission of the voting section, and whether and how such an agency can function in the era of the voting wars with liberal and conservative career attorneys overseen by political staffs which change policy and enforcement priorities with each new administration.

6. Finally, on Tom Perez: I don’t see anything in here which would seriously interfere with his nomination to be Secretary of Labor. The worst that’s said about him is that he gave testimony about the involvement of political appointees in the New Black Panthers case which turned out to be incorrect. There was no evidence he made any willfully misleading statements.




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