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Ashcroft, Justice and discrimination

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It appears working for John Ashcroft‘s Justice Department is no bed of roses for minority lawyers. Who would’ve thunk it? Indeed, the situation is such that the department censored a report it commissioned on employment discrimination in its workplaces. That move has caused additional embarassment. An intrepid Internet sleuth pierced the veil of deletions and posted the full report to the web, where it has been downloaded thousands of times.

The Justice Department earlier this month posted on its Web site a report from an outside contractor on employee diversity within the department. Many of the negative findings in the report, which the department had refused to release publicly for more than a year, were heavily edited. But Russ Kick, a writer and editor in Tucson, who maintains a Web site that archives government documents, found a way around the editing. He said he was able to call up the document in its Adobe Acrobat format and, using software that allows editing of PDF documents, then highlighted the blacked out editing bars and deleted them. The original, unedited text then appeared.

What was the Justice Department trying to hide?

The unedited report, completed in June 2002 by the consulting firm KPMG, found that minority employees at the department, which is responsible for enforcing the country’s civil rights laws, perceive their own workplace as biased and unfair.

“The department does face significant diversity issues,” the report said. “Whites and minorities as well as men and women perceive differences in many aspects of the work climate. For example, minorities are significantly more likely than whites to cite stereotyping, harassment and racial tension as characteristics of the work climate. Many of these differences are also present between men and women, although to a lesser extent.”

Another deleted part said efforts to promote diversity “will take extraordinarily strong leadership” from the attorney general’s office and other Justice Department offices.

I doubt that leadership is available. Prior to becoming attorney general, Ashcroft was a rock-ribbed conservative who sometimes flirted with neo-Confederates.

Now Ashcroft has been asked to explain why he met last fall with Thomas Bugel, the president of the militantly racist Council of Conservative Citizens and a veteran leader of segregationist groups in the St. Louis area.

In the midst of his hard-fought, unsuccessful Senate reelection campaign, Ashcroft sat down with Bugel at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport on September 22. Their meeting took place only weeks before Ashcroft’s Democratic opponent, Governor Mel Carnahan, was killed along with his son and campaign manager in a plane crash. Bugel wanted to talk with the senator about the case of Dr. Charles “Tom” Sell, a local dentist under indictment for plotting to murder an FBI agent and a federal witness. Over the past two years Bugel and other leaders of the white supremacist group have been agitating for the release of Sell, a longtime CCC member who has advertised his dental services on [President Gordon] Baum’s local radio program.

They have succeeded in getting Ashcroft, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., and other legislators to write letters to the Justice Department seeking an investigation of the unusual circumstances under which Sell has been held in federal custody for most of the past three years without trial. . . .

He is also is said to have blocked the ascension of a well qualifed African-American judge, Ronnie White, to a federal judgeship.

Judge White was attacked by Senator Ashcroft because, in 59 capital cases before the Missouri court, he had voted 18 times to reverse the death sentence. In 10 of those 18 the court was unanimously for reversal. Senator Ashcroft hit at cases in which Judge White dissented.

For appraisal of Judge White’s record in those cases I rely on Stuart Taylor Jr. of The National Journal, a conservative who is widely respected as a legal analyst. He wrote: “The two dissents most directly assailed by Ashcroft in fact exude moderation and care in dealing with the tension between crime-fighting and civil liberties.”

One of the dissents was in a horrifying murder case — the murder, among others, of a sheriff. Mr. Taylor wrote that Judge White’s “conclusion was plausible, debatable, highly unpopular (especially among police) and (for that reason) courageous. For John Ashcroft to call it `pro-criminal’ was obscene.”

In short, a judge who wrote a thoughtful, reasoned dissent in a murder case was told that it disqualified him for a federal judgeship. Think about what that means for our constitutional system.

Judicial independence has been a fundamental feature of the American system for 200 years and more. We rely on judges to enforce the Constitution: to protect our liberties. But a judge who does so in a controversial case is on notice from John Ashcroft that he may be punished. The judge must reject the constitutional claim, however meritorious, or face a malicious smear.

There is a slimy feel to Senator Ashcroft’s behavior with Judge White. One of the Republicans who voted against the judge at Senator Ashcroft’s urging, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, told Judge White the other day, “The Senate owes you an apology.” Commentators have urged Senator Ashcroft to apologize, but he has refused.

The minority attorneys in Ashcroft’s Justice Department are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Lawyers of color are disproportionately employed in government because they are less likely to be hired in the private sector. When they face discrimination in their public sector positions, their only remaining choice may be personal or small group practice. However, because of lack of the financial equity many white professionals take for granted, people of color are more likely to be unable to set up their own small businesses. I suspect there is a lot of grinning and bearing it going on at the Justice Department.

Note: This entry originally appeared at Silver Rights.

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  • That same report, half of which was blacked out, was defended by the next #2 in the Justice Department, who was appointed to investigate the CIA leak.

    Justice Dept Nominee Pledges Integrity In CIA Leak Probe
    WASHINGTON (AP)–President George W. Bush’s nominee for the No. 2 post at the Justice Department promised Wednesday the investigation into the leak of an undercover CIA officer’s name would be handled with integrity.
    “I don’t care about politics. I don’t care about expediency. I care about doing the right thing,” [James B.] Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I would never be involved in something I believed to be fundamentally wrong.”

    Maybe he just didn’t “believe it to be fundamentally wrong” to hide the truths in the report. Think we’ll get justice here?

  • Thanks, Hal. That information really makes the picture clearer. If someone that high up is doing damage control, a message is sent about leadership alright.

  • That message has been out there for quite a while – few seem to be listening. I’m not sure what it will take to wake them up.