The Justice Department’s unwatched revolving door

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has hired dozens of Democratic-affiliated lawyers from organizations that have a huge financial stake in the agency’s decisions and policies.

Under George W. Bush, DoJ officials shifted hiring patterns to favor lawyers from GOP-affiliated groups, and away from Democratic-affiliated groups, according to a 2008 report by the DoJ’s Inspector General. The IG report was produced after Democrats and their allies in the media declared Bush’s hiring patterns to be controversial.

This practice is regulated in other agencies, such as the Pentagon, where long-standing expectations and regulations restrict the “revolving door” movement of lobbyists and executives between companies and government posts. But these restrictions have little or no impact on the Justice Department’s hiring of lawyers from groups such as the ACLU or the NAACP, or from D.C-law firms such as Venable.

Many D.C. good-government lobbies have campaigned to narrow the revolving door between corporations and government, but little effort has been made to block the doorway between legal firms and government offices, said Craig Holman, a lobbyist at Public Citizen, a left-of-center advocacy group which has long pushed for tighter curbs on legislators’ ability to walkout out of Congress and into a lobbying firm.

“We’ve been battling revolving-door abuse [by companies] for years now,” said Holman. But the campaigns have “not been extended to that [legal] sector… there has not been any discussion yet” about doing so, he said.

The law community’s revolving door was inadvertently exposed last week by two uncritical articles published by the National Law Journal and the New York Times. Both outlets studied the resumes of the DoJ’s new hires to show how the DoJ had reversed hiring-patterns followed during the previous administration.

On May 30, the law journal said the DoJ had hired 118 new people, of which 60 worked for a “civil rights” organization, either at its federal office or regional affiliate. The 60 people included 24 from the ACLU, 15 from the Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under Law, 10 from the NAACP or the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and three from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

(Health care law waivers stir suspicion of favors)

The New York Times examined the 47 resumes of new hires, and reported May 31 that “about 90 percent of the Obama-era hires listed civil rights backgrounds on their résumés, up from about 38 percent of the Bush group hires.”

Although the term “civil rights” is vague and politically contentious, many of the new lawyers hired by the department’s civil-rights division previously worked for advocacy groups that also describe themselves as “civil rights” firms. The identified firms and groups are politically aligned with the Democratic party’s progressive causes. There is no sign the DoJ is hiring lawyers from groups that advocate for civil-rights related to gun-ownership, property, low taxes, or human life.

The department’s new hires include two lawyers from the ACLU’s voting rights project. They’re now working in the DoJ’s voting-rights office, which has enormous influence on the terms and outcome of voting-related lawsuits around the country.

The 2010 annual report from the ACLU’s voting project says the group’s activities include “litigation, Section 5 comment letters and other communications with the Department of Justice, [plus] lobbying, assisting and coordinating efforts with ACLU affiliates.” The report’s also showed the group was involved in 34 lawsuits in 21 states, and received payments following court victories in at least two lawsuits. ACLU lawyers routinely refer to their group as the nation’s ‘biggest civil-rights law firm.’