I wonder if Congress will reach this issue in today's Gonzales hearings. I somehow doubt it; the news probably broke a bit late, and got buried in the media saturation of other events. Unfortunately, the discovery that Justice was engaged in deliberate, systematic policy to deny Americans the full exercise of their rights, all for petty partisan reasons ... well, that all sounds rather dry and academic when placed against recent events. It's hard to make something like this hold people's attention.
WASHINGTON -- For six years, the Bush administration, aided by Justice Department political appointees, has pursued an aggressive legal effort to restrict voter turnout in key battleground states in ways that favor Republican political candidates, according to former department lawyers and a review of written records. The administration intensified its efforts last year as President Bush's popularity and Republican support eroded heading into a midterm battle for control of Congress, which the Democrats won.
Facing nationwide voter registration drives by Democratic-leaning groups, the administration alleged widespread election fraud and endorsed proposals for tougher state and federal voter identification laws. Presidential political adviser Karl Rove alluded to the strategy in April 2006 when he railed about voter fraud in a speech to the Republican National Lawyers Association. Questions about the administration's campaign against alleged voter fraud have helped fuel the political tempest over the firings last year of eight U.S. attorneys, several of whom were ousted in part because they failed to bring voter fraud cases important to Republican politicians. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales could shed more light on the reasons for those firings when he appears today before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Civil rights advocates contend that the administration's policies were intended to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of poor and minority voters who tend to support Democrats, and by filing state and federal lawsuits, civil rights groups have won court rulings blocking some of its actions.
Justice Department spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson called any allegation that the department has rolled back minority voting rights "fundamentally flawed." She said the department has "a completely robust record when it comes to enforcing federal voting rights laws," citing its support last year for reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the filing of at least 20 suits to ensure that language services are available to non-English-speaking voters. The administration, however, has repeatedly invoked allegations of widespread voter fraud to justify tougher voter ID measures and other steps to restrict access to the ballot, even though research suggests that voter fraud is rare.
Since President Bush's first attorney general, John Ashcroft, a former Republican senator from Missouri, launched a "Ballot Access and Voter Integrity Initiative" in 2001, Justice Department political appointees have exhorted U.S. attorneys to prosecute voter fraud cases, and the department's Civil Rights Division has sought to roll back policies to protect minority voting rights. On virtually every significant decision affecting election balloting since 2001, the division's Voting Rights Section has come down on the side of Republicans, notably in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Washington and other states where recent elections have been decided by narrow margins.
Joseph Rich, who left his job as chief of the section in 2005, said these events formed an unmistakable pattern. "As more information becomes available about the administration's priority on combating alleged, but not well substantiated, voter fraud, the more apparent it is that its actions concerning voter ID laws are part of a partisan strategy to suppress the votes of poor and minority citizens," he said....
Congress is likely to reach the voter fraud investigations purely as an issue of the mismanagement of Justice, and not as a criminal activity engaged in by the policy arms of the department as a whole. To be somewhat fair, I don't think they're even vaguely prepared to engage in a full criminal investigation of the department. After all, with no independent prosecutor statute, arranging and managing such an investigation of the department that would normally be conducting such investigations would be unspeakably difficult.
In any event, in today's hearings, it doesn't look like Congress quite reached these issues, nor, one suspects, does it intend to:
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007; 3:34 PM
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales told a Senate panel today that the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys was "flawed," but he continued to insist that there was "nothing improper" about the removals, and he rebuffed suggestions that he resign. Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the nation's chief law enforcement officer faced tough, skeptical questioning from both Democratic and Republican senators, as he argued that he had "limited involvement" in the process that led to the firings but defended them nonetheless.
One Republican senator, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, pointedly told Gonzales that the dismissals have been handled "in a very incompetent manner," tarnishing the reputations of the prosecutors and damaging public confidence in the Justice Department. "I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation," Coburn said.
Gonzales rejected the idea, saying he was committed to correcting his mistakes. Earlier, Gonzales said he would resign only if he thought he could no longer be effective. "I have admitted mistakes in managing this issue, but the department as a general matter has not been mismanaged," he said. "We've done great things." Saying he was working hard to improve morale at Justice in the wake of the controversy, he told the committee, "The moment I believe I can no longer be effective, I will resign. . . ." But he added, "I believe I can continue to be effective as the attorney general of the United States," and he told senators, "I don't have anything to hide." Under questioning, Gonzales said that before the dismissals, he discussed issues related to the performance of U.S. attorneys with President Bush and his top political adviser, Karl Rove. He said the conversations were about pursuing election fraud in three jurisdictions, one of which -- New Mexico -- was the territory of the U.S. attorney whose firing has been among the most controversial....
[...]Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, opened the hearing by declaring that the Justice Department under Gonzales "is experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled during its 137-year history." He said he fears that the department "may be losing its way." "The Department of Justice should never be reduced to another political arm of the White House -- this White House or any White House," Leahy said. He said the firings have not been adequately explained, "and there is mounting evidence of improper considerations and actions resulting in the dismissals." [...]
At the very least, Gonzales comes off as a surprisingly disengaged manager, quite nearly Reagan-like in how detached he was from the decision-making. To decide to fire eight high-level employees without reviewing the record is incompetent in the extreme, even if you accept the idea that Justice should be a partisan hack for the White House; there was astonishingly little chance that there wouldn't be some sort of fuss over this. Should he have foreseen quite this level of fuss? Perhaps not; after all, Congress have been craven cowards for the past six years, and no doubt, the administration serenely expected such behavior to continue. But he should have been prepared for something; this entire crisis has been marked by a signal lack of preparation by Gonzales.
Gonzales says that he wants to remain, and that he plans to increase morale in the department. It's rather difficult to imagine how the morale at Justice can possibly be improved under Gonzales; after all, this is the man who signed off on the firings of eight people who do in fact seem to have been doing their jobs well, the way they were supposed to, but not the way the White House wanted them to do. It's impossible to imagine that the department will begin administering the rule of law in anything like a fair and impartial way under Gonzales' "leadership", or, indeed under anyone this administration would pick to replace Gonzales should he resign. Given the president and his advisors, they cannot possibly want a Justice department that would administer law in a nonpartisan manner; to do so would be entirely disloyal to the president and his policies. (That the Justice department is not supposed to be that sort of policy arm of the executive is entirely beside the point.) Congress is unlikely to urge the purging of upper level personnel Justice seems to require, and, indeed, has no constitutional grounds on which to do so. We seem to be stuck with the Miscarriage of Justice Department for at least the next two years, and the aftereffects of it for many more years to come.Posted by iain at April 19, 2007 03:17 PM