House GOP slams Justice Department as racist, mismanaged; Sheila Jackson Lee pushes back

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

GOP lawmakers hurled charges of racism and preferential treatment at the Department of Justice unit assigned to combat those ills —the civil rights division.

The charges flew at a Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday morning. Former Justice Department employees drew on past experiences and a March Inspector General’s report on allegations of race-related issues.

“The IG report is a sad commentary on a dysfunctional division torn by polarization and unprofessional behavior where career employees who do not toe liberal views are subjected to racist comments, harassment, bullying, and threat of physical violence,” Hans Von Spakovsky, a conservative legal scholar and former official in the civil rights division during George W. Bush’s administration, told the committee.

Von Spakovsky said the department was not race-neutral in choosing which voting cases to prosecute and said the IG report revealed hiring practices biased towards political liberals. Von Spakovsky now works at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.
Two other witnesses joined Von Spakovsky’s condemnations, both from conservative-aligned groups—The Election Law Center and The Liberty Counsel. A fourth witness, a law professor at the University of Michigan, largely disagreed with Von Spakovsky’s characterizations.

During the hearing, visibly upset lawmakers grilled the witnesses. They often interrupted them, sometimes each other, and sometimes insisted the witnesses answer with simple yes or no despite witness protestations.

The IG report did not agree with Von Spakovsky’s and other critics’ assessments. The report examined the division from 2001 to 2011.
“Although we had concerns about particular decisions in a few cases, we found insufficient evidence to conclude that the substantive enforcement decisions by Division leadership in Voting Section cases were made in a discriminatory manner,” the report said in its conclusion.

The report said harassment occurred, but was not institutional. The report blamed harassment on a climate of polarization and poor professionalism within the division, where colleagues refused to trust each other. Victims and perpetrators of harassment included liberals, conservatives, whites, and racial minorities, according to the report.

The report did say that politically liberal employees dominated hiring, but did not blame this on biased hiring practices.

“Although we found that the composition of the selected candidates was the result of the application of objectively neutral hiring criteria, this result contributed to the perception of continued politicization in the Section,” the report said.

Among the lawmakers, one issue that surfaced was the battle of state-based voter identification laws. Republicans such as Rep. Ted Poe of Humble see measures as preventing voter fraud, while Democrats argued they create barriers to voting.

“When a person goes to vote, and someone else is cheating—shouldn’t be voting, it disenfranchises the lawful voter,” Poe said in committee.

Poe went on to slam the Department of Justice for having a bias against voter protection laws written by conservatives.
Tyler Rep. Louie Gohmert seconded Poe. Gohmert brought up a part of the Voting Rights Act that mandated states with histories of discrimination must pre-clear changes in voting laws with the Department of Justice. Texas is one of those states and lost its battle with the federal government on a voter identification law in 2012.

“To continue to cram down section five requirements on the states where there is less racial disparity than in the states where senators and congressman were voting to force this down the throats of states who had brought themselves in compliance of the law was in violation of equal protection,” Gohmert said in committee.

Democrats, including Houston Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, seemed appalled at the testimony and arguments of the conservatives in the hearing. Many Democrats accused House Republicans of using the hearing to embarrass Tom Perez, currently the head of the civil rights division, who has been nominated by President Obama to become U.S. Labor Secretary.

“I suggest that this hearing should be renamed: We lost the presidency and Mr. Tom Perez is at fault,” Jackson Lee told the committee.
Jackson Lee went on to argue that voter identification laws, such as the one in Texas, were veiled attempts at suppression. She said Perez’s work expanded beyond the pre-clearance states, striking down laws in places like Florida and Ohio as well.

“Why are we trying to malign a gentleman who worked vigorously to the opportunity for all Americans to vote?” Jackson Lee said.
The arguments today brought up memories of the February Supreme Court case challenging the Voting Rights Act, especially the pre-clearance requirement. The court is expected to release its decision in the Summer.

The accusations of partisanship and a dearth of professionalism at the Department of Justice resembled the accusations made against George W. Bush in 2006. That year, seven U.S. attorneys accused the department of dismissing them on political grounds.