What Exactly Does 'Reshaping' the Civil Rights Division Mean?

Conservatives and liberals interpret today's New York Times story on the Justice Department

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As The New York Times reported today, the Obama administration is planning a "reshaping" of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Attorney General Eric Holder apparently plans a greater focus on "voting rights, housing, employment, bank lending practices and redistricting after the 2010 census," Charlie Savage reported. And there is talk of a "hiring spree," and a "revival of high-impact civil rights enforcement against policies [...] where statistics show that minorities fare disproportionately poorly." Aside pushing back "Bush-era" changes, though, what does this actually mean? Conservatives and liberals clash sharply on this question. Here are some of the clearest opinions from both sides:

  • The Bottom Line: Disparate-Impact Lawsuits  The National Review's Roger Clegg called the article "a big yawn [...] devoted to personnel issues." The Obama administration plans to "give liberal career lawyers freer rein," he wrote. "There's also an unenlightening he-said/she-said discussion,"  he continued, "about whether it was the Bush administration that 'politicized' the Division, or whether--ironically--it is the Obama administration that is really politicizing it." ("The latter," according to Clegg.) But the big deal, Clegg said, is that the administration is planning more "disparate impact lawsuits":
Disparate-impact lawsuits challenge practices that lead to statistically worse results for a particular minority group (or women) relative to other racial groups (or men), without alleging that the practice is actually discriminatory in its terms, design, or application — that is, is actually “discrimination” at all, by any reasonable definition of the term. Such lawsuits result in (a) the abandonment or watering down of perfectly legitimate selection devices (like tests), or (b) the adoption of surreptitious quotas (to avoid the disparate impact in the first place), or (c) both.

  • It's About Reparing Bush-Era Damage  A. Serwer of the liberal publication The American Prospect gave his version of the background information: "During the Bush tenure at the Justice Department, political appointees dismantled the procedural safeguards in hiring that put career attorneys rather than political appointees in charge of the hiring process." The Bush administration, he alleged, instituted ideological screening. Serwer scorned Republican Hans von Spakovsky's accusation that the new Obama administration moves were "nakedly political," pointing to von Spakovsky's own highly partisan history. He clearly laid out the Democratic view of the situation:
Reforming the Civil Rights Division may seem like a small thing. But I honestly believe the most lasting damage the Bush administration did to American society was in the Justice Department, where torture was "legalized," the right to vote became conditional, and the job of upholding the nation's laws was entrusted to ideologues and religious fanatics who were hired based on their partisan loyalties.

  • See Serwer  Washington Monthly's Steve Benen applauded Serwer's explanation, adding that "the damage inflicted on this department by loyal Bushies in unforgivable," and Holder's proposed reforms absolutely necessary.
How can we be sure the Justice Department is on the right track? Hans von Spakovsky has accused the Obama team of "nakedly political" maneuvers.

Hans von Spakovsky is, of course, a revolting, dishonorable figure from Bush's team, who was a leading player in the administration's "vote-suppression agenda." If he's outraged, sane people everywhere can take comfort.
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