How Bush got his docile Justice Department

Judging from how his administration has operated, President George W. Bush wanted lawyers who would tell him he could do what he wanted. He found them.

That's been evident from his administration's record of failure when its policies are challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court as well as the embarrassing appearances of some his appointees before congressional committees.

But there is no better, or more disturbing, illustration of the administration's disregard for the law than the recent report on the politicization of the U.S. Department of Justice. What happened there is surely unethical, and an inspector general's report called it illegal.

The Justice Department workforce is made of two groups, political appointees who come and go with administrations and nonpartisan career lawyers covered by federal civil service law. Political and ideological factors are not supposed to be used in filling the career jobs.

In a report made public last week, the Justice Department's inspector general and ethics office officials found gross political considerations in acceptance of applicants for two of the department's key recruiting programs – the attorney general's honors program and the department's summer intern program. The report concluded that “many qualified applicants” were rejected because of what was perceived as liberal leanings.

For years, job applicants were judged on grades, their law schools, legal clerkships and other experiences. But in 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft gave his political aides final say over the applications, imposing what some insiders considered a blatant ideological and political screening system.

National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg reported that some applicants who'd been selected were “deselected” not just for being Democrats but for being affiliated with, for instance, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Potomac Conservancy or Amnesty International.

One disheartening incident in the report involved investigators' interview with a Justice political appointee. He reported finding one highly qualified applicant's essay “a little bit troublesome” because she said she wanted to work at the department where she would “be able to consider both the needs of my client and also what is best for my country.”

Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who wasn't in the job then, has said that considering politics in hiring for career slots is “unacceptable.” He said this week he'll institute changes recommended by the inspector general. It's to President Bush's discredit that such changes are even needed.