Unanimous Recommendation by 8 Staffers, Including Head of Voting Rights Division Ignored!
As With Georgia Photo ID Case, Bush Makes Mockery of Voting Rights Act, Ranking Democrat Calls for House Judiciary Committee Investigation
By Brad Friedman on 12/2/2005, 12:56pm PT  

Washington Post, in a stunning front page splash today, is reporting that political appointees in George W. Bush's Dept. of Justice overruled their own attorneys in the Voting Rights Act unit who had recommended against Texas' state redistricting plan for Congressional districts. That new redistricting plan was key to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's (R-TX) controversial strategy in the state which eventually resulted in 7 additional Republicans being elected to the U.S. House in 2004.

Eight staffers at the DoJ, including the heads of the Voting Rights Division, advocated against the redistricting in a 73-page memo, but Bush political appointees agreed to allow the changes to go through anyway! The Voting Rights Act requires DoJ pre-approval of changes to electoral law in several states where minority voting rights have historically been an issue.

According to WaPo, "The Justice Department memo recommending rejection of the Texas plan was written by two analysts and five lawyers. In addition, the head of the voting section at the time, Joseph Rich, wrote a concurring opinion."

The disturbing revelation is similar to one reported two weeks ago, based on another yet leaked memo reported by WaPo's Dan Eggen, in which the Bush Attorney General is shown to have overruled 4 of 5 staffers who had recommended against pre-approval of Georgia's new Photo ID requirement at the polls. That law has since been struck down by Federal Courts which described it as a "Jim Crow-era Poll Tax."

The Bush administration has made a mockery of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which celebrated its 40th anniversary over the summer. Several key clauses of the Voting Rights Act will be coming up for renewal authorization by Congress in 2007. It was reported some time ago that George W. Bush was "not familiar" with the VRA when asked about his support for its renewal during a meeting with several minority legislators in the summer prior to the 2004 election.

In 2003, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the ranking member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, had requested review of the documents now revealed by WaPo. He was met with "a cold response" at the time from the DoJ according to a just-issued press release (posted in full below). He is now calling for a full investigation by the Judiciary Committee into both the Texas and Georgia matters.

The following is from an AP summary of the WaPo's report [emphasis added]:

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the Justice Department's decision to ignore staff lawyers' concerns that a Texas redistricting plan orchestrated by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay would dilute minority voting rights.

A Justice Department memo released Friday showed that agency staffers unanimously objected to the Texas plan, which DeLay pushed through the Legislature to help elect more Republicans to the U.S. House.

Senior agency officials, appointed by President Bush, brushed aside concerns about the possible impact on minority voting and approved the new districts for the 2004 elections.
Of the state's 32 House seats, Republicans held 15 before the 2004 elections. Under the DeLay-backed plan, Republicans were elected to 22 of the state's seats in the House.
Because of historic discrimination against minority voters, Texas is required under provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to get Justice Department approval for any voting changes it makes to ensure the changes don't undercut minority voting.
Eight department staffers, including the heads of the Voting Rights Division, objected to the redistricting map, according to the memo which was first reported in Friday editions of The Washington Post.

[Gerry] Hebert [, who has been challenging the ruling] said when a case is a close call staff lawyers usually include counterpoints to their conclusions in their memo. But he said there is nothing in the 73-page memo suggesting a plausible reason for approving the map. "So that raises a lot of suspicions about the motives" of the senior officials who are political appointees, he said.
"The fact that the White House has covered up this document for so long provides a smoking gun pointing out efforts, led by Bush political appointees and Tom DeLay, to systematically cripple the voting rights of minorities," said Texas Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, one of the Democratic lawmakers who fled to New Mexico to thwart passage of the redistricting plan.

The WaPo report adds:

Mark Posner, a longtime Justice Department lawyer who now teaches law at American University, said it was "highly unusual" for political appointees to overrule a unanimous finding such as the one in the Texas case.

"In this kind of situation, where everybody agrees at least on the staff level . . . that is a very, very strong case," Posner said. "The fact that everybody agreed that there were reductions in minority voting strength, and that they were significant, raises a lot of questions as to why it was" approved, he said.

The full memo is available on the WaPo site here [PDF].

UPDATE: MSNBC Video of WaPo's Dan Eggen discussing story...

Conyers' just-released call for an investigation into the matter follows in full...

For Immediate Release: Contact: Dena Graziano

December 2, 2005

Conyers Calls for Investigation of DOJ Voting Section and Voting Rights Act Preclearance Procedures

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Representative John Conyers, Jr., Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, released the following statement today concerning the revelation in the Washington Post that political appointees overruled a staff recommendation that the Texas congressional redistricting plan of 2003 be rejected as retrogressive under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act:

"At the outset, I expressed concern about the politicization of the Voting Right Act, Section 5, preclearance process for the Texas congressional redistricting plan. In a November 25, 2003, letter to the Attorney General, I stated that it was clear that the Texas congressional redistricting process had been tainted by much more than the customary political rivalry accompanying decennial redistricting and requested that all political appointees be recused from consideration of the plan. This request was met with a cold response. Because the then Chief of the Voting Section failed to sign the "no objection" letter giving DOJ preclearance for the plan, I felt that there was a strong implication of undue political influence and requested a copy of the recommendation memorandum prepared by the career staff from the Attorney General that December. That request also met with a cold response.

The story in today's Washington Post finally lifts the lid on process about which I have been seeking more detailed information for over two years. As I had always feared, the Section 5 process had been compromised at the highest levels of Congress and the Department of Justice. Given the continuing importance of the Section 5, especially in light of similar concerns about the process in Georgia and Mississippi, the Judiciary Committee must conduct rigorous oversight of the Civil Rights Division to protect the integrity of the Voting Rights Act. I will ask Chairman Sensenbrenner to schedule hearings next month to get to the bottom of what is going on within the Department. As we move forward, this situation cannot be allowed to become a distraction from the important work of renewing and restoring the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act."


UPDATE 12/10/05: Now the DoJ has now barred staffers from offering opinions at all! Democracy crumbles...

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