An extensive U.S. Justice Department internal watchdog report assessing the enforcement of voting rights laws found deep polarization and mistrust among career and political lawyers in a special section of the Civil Rights Division, harming the functioning of the unit.
But the 258-page Office of the Inspector General report, released Tuesday, didn't find evidence that lawyers in the Voting Section based enforcement decisions on race or partisan leanings. The section's lawyers examine a variety of issues, including redistricting cases and disputes over voter identification measures.
"We believe that the high partisan stakes associated with some of the statutes that the Voting Section enforces have contributed to polarization and mistrust within the Section," the report, issued by Inspector General Michael Horowitz, said. The OIG review included 100,000 pages of documents and interviews with more than 135 people, including Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.
The lawyers "on different sides of internal disputes about particular cases in the Voting Section have been quick to suspect those on the other side of partisan motivations, heightening the sense of polarization in the Section," the report said. "The cycles of actions and reactions that we found resulted from this mistrust were, in many instances, incompatible with the proper functioning of a component of the Department."
The report also said that "we found that numerous career Voting Section employees engaged in highly inappropriate and hostile conduct toward other career section employees." In 2007, the report said, antagonism in the section led to a series of Internet postings "containing a wide array of highly inappropriate remarks ranging from petting to juvenile personal attacks to racist and potentially threatening statements."
Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general who oversees the voting section, said in a letter to Horowitz that "without question, the Voting Section in January 2009 had low morale and an unacceptable degree of staff conflict, which we believe were largely a product of the illegal hiring, transfers, case assignments and other personnel practices" that occurred between 2003 and 2006.
Perez, who has been widely reported to be President Barack Obama's pick for secretary of the Labor Department, said, "since 2009, the Civil Rights Division and the Voting Section have undertaken a number of steps to improve the professionalism of our workplace and to ensure that we enforce civil rights laws in an independent, evenhanded fashion."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the report "shows longstanding problems and politicization" in the voting section from the Clinton administration up through the current leadership of Perez.
"[W]hile the Inspector General was not able to substantiate some allegations, there are some egregious findings over the years that I find hard to believe have never been dealt with," Grassley said in a statement. He added: "The report shows that despite claims that it's a new era in the Civil Rights Division, they are sadly mistaken and it's business as usual."
Horowitz, the DOJ inspector general since March 2012, is scheduled to testify today at the House Committee on Appropriations.
Mike Scarcella writes for The National Law Journal, a Daily Report affiliate.