Congressmen call for Justice Department probe

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In a recent article, the Atlanta Progressive News reported five U.S. senators and 13 members of the U.S. House are calling for an investigation of the federal Justice Department.

The call for a probe of the justice agency stems from two recent cases in which political appointees have overruled the recommendations of professional staff members and gave prior approval to new electoral laws that come under the jurisdiction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

One of the congressional members sounding out the possibility of a full-scale investigation is Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee. Another legislator favoring a probe is Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who is ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Conyers said he will ask Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., to schedule hearings before the committee. Sensenbrenner is chairman of the group.

Voting rights are becoming a hot item and a major point of strain in the Justice Department, according to The Washington Post. The Post reported staff attorneys in the department are barred from making recommendations in major voting rights cases; a significant procedural change from past practice.

Recent rulings in cases in Texas and Georgia where approval was given to Republican-engineered plans, have prompted growing public criticism of the department. The plans were found to harm minority voters, in the opinions of staff attorneys who analyzed the plans. In both cases, the attorneys were overruled by political appointees.

A department employee, who spoke anonymously, said in the Georgia case a staff memo urged the plan be rejected because it called for the use of photo IDs at the polls, a practice that could harm black voters.

That recommendation to reject the plan was pulled out of the document and was not sent to higher officials in the department’s Civil Rights Division, according to several sources.

The shift in Justice Department policy was first reported by the Dallas Morning News. When the Post asked the department for comment on this change, spokesman Eric Holland replied: “The opinions and expertise of the career lawyers are valued and respected and continue to be an integral part of the internal deliberation process upon which the department heavily relies when making litigation decisions.” Beyond that, Holland would not comment.

Tensions have been mounting within the department, peaking last week with a heated meeting in which John Tanner, chief of the voting section, sharply criticized the work of staff attorneys in analyzing voting rights cases. A number of employees were so angered at Tanner’s charges that they boycotted the staff holiday party later in the week, the Post said.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires states, such as Texas and Georgia, with a history of discriminatory election policies to get approval from the Justice Department or a federal court of any changes to their systems. The section bars changes that would be harmful to minority voters.

John Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and a former staffer in the voting rights section of the Justice Department, said: “It’s an attempt by the political hierarchy to insulate themselves from any accountability by essentially leaving it up to a chief who is there at their whim. To me, it shows a fear of dealing with the legal issues in these cases.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., commented: “America deserves better than a Civil Rights Division that puts the political agenda of those in power over the interests of the people it serves.”

From the Dec. 21-27, 2005, issue

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