Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Politicization of Department of Justice

Ideological hiring and firing policies lead to resignation of top DOJ officials


The Department of Justice (DOJ), under the Bush Administration, made an array of inappropriate, politically based decisions, some apparently illegal, which included choosing candidates for career appointments on political grounds. Some of these decisions reached back to the tenure of John Ashcroft, who served as attorney general from 2001 to early 2005, but many of them occurred — and burst into public view — while Alberto Gonzales served as attorney general, from 2005 to the fall of 2007. Under law, certain DOJ positions are reserved for political appointees, but legal internships, assistant U.S. Attorney positions, and immigration judgeships are supposed to be filled without regard to political affiliation. Before 2003, those interested in becoming immigration judges generally applied in response to public job postings, but then, according to a report by the DOJ inspector general, the White House and the Office of the Attorney General began expressing interest in these positions. Monica Goodling, DOJ White House liaison and senior counsel to the Attorney General, judged candidates for these and other jobs on criteria that included membership in a conservative legal society, statements on their “political philosophy,” and opinions on hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage. In addition, Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ chief of staff, pushed for the unprecedented dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys under circumstances that appeared to be overtly political. He also suggested that the Bush administration use its power to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for indefinite periods to circumvent the Senate-confirmation process; one of those Sampson recommended for such an appointment was a former department official who had hired candidates for positions in the Civil Rights Division based on their credentials as Republicans and conservatives. These developments have affected the public’s perception of a department whose credibility depends on being above ideology and partisanship in enforcement of the law.

After extensive congressional hearings, Alberto Gonzales, Kyle Sampson, Monica Goodling and other top Justice officials stepped down. The department’s inspector general has released reports criticizing both the politicized hiring and the politically-tinged removals of U.S. attorneys. A third report focusing on the politicized Civil Rights Division is forthcoming. In September 2008, current Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey appointed a federal prosecutor to consider investigating the U.S. attorney dismissals. In response to a request for comment, a DOJ spokesman pointed the Center to a recent speech in which Mukasey said, “There is no denying it: the system failed. . . . The good news is that much has changed since the period covered by these reports [from the Inspector General’s office] — as the reports themselves acknowledge.”

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