Every Single One: The Politicized Hiring of Eric Holder’s Voting Section

COMMENTARY Civil Society

Every Single One: The Politicized Hiring of Eric Holder’s Voting Section

Aug 15, 2011 17 min read
Hans A. von Spakovsky

Election Law Reform Initiative Manager, Senior Legal Fellow

Hans von Spakovsky is an authority on a wide range of issues—including civil rights, civil justice, the First Amendment, immigration.

Recently released documents — disclosed by the Obama Justice Department only after a court battle — reveal that the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice is engaging in politicized hiring in the career civil service ranks. Typical Washington behavior, you say? Except the hiring in question is nearly unprecedented in scope and significantly eclipses anything the Bush administration was even accused of doing. And the evidence of the current political activity is far less impeachable than what was behind the libelous attacks leveled at officials from the Bush years.

For nearly a year, the Civil Rights Division rebuffed Pajamas Media’s Freedom of Information Act request for the resumes of attorneys hired into the Division during the tenure of Eric Holder. PJM was finally forced to file a federal lawsuit earlier this year. Only then did Justice relent and turn over the documents. The result leaves little wonder why PJM’s request was met with such intense resistance.

The Department’s political leadership clearly recognized that the resumes of these new attorneys would expose the hypocrisy of the Obama administration’s polemical attacks on the Bush administration for supposedly engaging in “politicized hiring” — and that everyone would see just how militantly partisan the Obama Civil Rights Division truly is. Holder’s year-long delay before producing these documents — particularly when compared to the almost-instantaneous turnaround by the Bush administration of a virtually identical request by the Boston Globe back in 2006 — also shows how deep politics now runs in the Department.

As Richard Pollock of Pajamas Media observed in an article, none of this should surprise anyone even remotely familiar with Holder’s highly partisan nature. Indeed, Holder boasted to the American Constitution Society (an organization started as a liberal counterweight to the Federalist Society) back in June 2008 that the Obama Justice Department was “going to be looking for people who share our values,” and that “a substantial number of those people would probably be members of the American Constitution Society.” The hiring records from Holder’s initial thirty months in office underscore how serious he was about this mission.

This is the first in a series of articles by Pajamas Media about the Civil Rights Division’s hiring practices since President Obama took office. These accounts will put to the test Holder’s repeated (and all-too-rarely scrutinized) statement that ideological considerations play no role in the hiring of career attorneys in his Department — a test that the Department’s practices clearly fail.

The evidence will demonstrate that, in contrast to the Bush administration’s Civil Rights Division — which hired individuals from across the political spectrum — there has been nary a token conservative welcomed into the Division under Holder. More than that, though, this series will show that the ranks of new civil servants arriving in Holder’s civil rights shop in protected civil service slots are some of the most strident ideologues in Washington.

But don’t just take my word for it. Let the resumes speak for themselves.

We start today with the Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section. This Section is responsible for enforcing, among other things, all aspects of the Voting Rights Act. This includes reviewing redistricting and other pre-clearance submissions under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that covered jurisdictions throughout the country must submit to the Justice Department for approval. Redistricting maps, voter ID statutes, citizenship verification laws, and a host of other politically contentious election issues rest in the hands of these Voting Section bureaucrats.

Long a refuge of partisan activists and ideological crusaders, the Section has been filling its ranks over the last 30 months with like-minded liberals ready to do the bidding of left-wing advocacy organizations. Sixteen attorneys have come on board in this hiring binge. Who are these new radicals?

Bryan Sells: Mr. Sells was recently hired as one of the Voting Section’s new deputy chiefs. He comes to the Department from the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, where he worked for nearly 10 years as a Senior Staff Counsel. During his tenure, his organization strongly opposed all voter ID laws, and challenged the right of states to verify the U.S. citizenship of individuals seeking to register to vote. He also characterized state felon disenfranchisement laws – which are expressly authorized in the Constitution — as a “slap in the face to democracy,” and consistently took the most aggressive (and generally legally unsupportable) positions on redistricting cases throughout the country.

Meredith Bell-Platts: The other new deputy chief hired by the Voting Section, Meredith Bell-Platts, also comes from the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, where she, too, spent nearly 10 years. Much of her time there was devoted to blasting voter ID requirements, which she claimed were motivated by people who do not want to see blacks vote (an issue on which she consistently lost in court). Before arriving at the ACLU, Ms. Bell-Platts was a founding member of the Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law, a publication whose stated “mission is to explore the impact of gender, sexuality, and race on both the theory and practice of law” and thereby “complement[] a long tradition of feminist scholarship and advocacy at the [Georgetown] Law Center.”

Anna Baldwin: While all of the new trial attorneys hired into the Voting Section have streaks of radicalism, few can match Ms. Baldwin. A financial contributor to the Obama presidential campaign, she clerked for two liberal Clinton appointees on the federal bench and then worked briefly at Jenner & Block (a D.C. law firm which has been a major feeder of Democratic political appointees to the Obama administration), where she primarily pursued liberal positions in pro bono litigation. During law school, she interned at the International Labor Rights Fund and Women’s Agenda for Change.

Prior to that, Baldwin served for three years as field coordinator for Equality Florida, where she “coordinated lobbying and state legislative policy work on behalf of Florida’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities.” Meanwhile, in her undergraduate days at Harvard, she was a member of the “Queer Resistance Front” and was frequently covered in the Harvard Crimson for her radical antics. A review of these campus newspaper articles suggests that Ms. Baldwin will have to work very hard to separate her activist politics from her role as an apolitical civil servant. Then again, if she takes her cues from most of her Voting Section colleagues, she won’t even need to attempt such separation. As the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case showed, partisanship and law enforcement are one and the same in Holder’s Civil Rights Division.

Risa Berkower: Ms. Berkower was hired into the Voting Section following a clerkship with U.S. District Judge Christopher Droney, a liberal jurist who President Obama recently nominated to the Second Circuit and whose brother is the former state chairman of the Connecticut Democratic Party. During law school at Fordham, she interned in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, a notorious hotbed of left-wing activity. She also worked on the “Student Hurricane Network” with members of the NAACP LDF, the Advancement Project, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. It was in her undergraduate days at Yale, though, that she really let her left-wing political colors shine. While on the Yale College Council, she wrote an editorial advocating support of unionization of Yale graduate students and advocated “neutrality” in card-check reform (which has become a major Obama initiative as a sop to organized labor).

It is quite ironic that a lawyer who refused to oppose the effort by unions to get rid of the secret ballot, a fundamental mainstay of our democracy, is now charged with protecting voting rights. All of the leadership positions on Berkower’s resume were conspicuously redacted by the Obama administration in its FOIA response to PJM. And lest you think she abandoned her radical ways since arriving in the Civil Rights Division, Ms. Berkower is the same Voting Section attorney who negotiated the outlandish consent decree with the state of Rhode Island earlier this year in a case under Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act which, as Christian Adams detailed extensively, ignored the requirements of federal law and represented a gross abuse of federal authority.

Daniel Freeman: Mr. Freeman comes to the Voting Section following a fellowship at the New York Civil Liberties Union. He previously interned at the ACLU, where he assisted the organization with its efforts to attack the Bush administration’s national security policies. He also helped to challenge the “state secrets privilege” and to support the rights of terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay during an internship at Human Rights First.

On his resume, Freeman proudly notes his membership in the liberal American Constitution Society, as well as his service as co-chair of the Yale Law School Democrats. Of course, being a member of the American Constitution Society does not bar you from federal employment. Yet the Bush administration was castigated for hiring lawyers who were members of the Federalist Society. Incidentally, Mr. Freeman is helping lead the Voting Section’s review of redistricting submissions from the state of Alabama.

Jenigh Garrett: Ms. Garrett worked for approximately five years as an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), where she worked on voting-related litigation. She co-drafted the NAACP LDF’s amicus brief in Crawford v. Marion County Board of Elections, claiming that voter ID laws are unconstitutional (a position the Supreme Court rejected in an opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens).

Garrett also was a member of the organization’s litigation team in Hayden v. Paterson, arguing that felon disenfranchisement laws violate the Voting Rights Act (a position the Second Circuit rejected). She is a member of the American Constitution Society and recently gave a presentation at Yale Law School on “The Future of Black Legal Scholarship and Activism.” Although DOJ’s FOIA shop notably redacted her other activities on her resume, perhaps legislators in Virginia can ask her about them: she is the redistricting point of contact for the Commonwealth.

Abel Gomez: Mr. Gomez initially came to the Voting Section in the waning days of the Clinton administration as part of a wave of hiring engineered by former Acting Assistant Attorney General Bill Yeomans. The intent: stack the Civil Rights Division with left-wing activists before President Bush took office. Gomez had previously served for six years as a public defender in Tallahassee, Florida. In 2007, he left the Civil Rights Division to join another component of the Department of Justice, but was eager to rejoin the Voting Section once Obama and Holder were in charge. In addition to his voting work, FEC records reveal that he is a significant financial contributor to the “Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund” and to organizations opposing California’s Proposition 8 (Marriage Protection Act).

Bradley Heard: Before joining the Voting Section, Mr. Heard worked for a number of years at the Advancement Project, a radical left-wing voting organization. The Advancement Project has worked closely with the ACLU, NAACP LDF, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and other liberal advocates to oppose voter ID statutes, felon disenfranchisement laws, and citizenship verification regulations, and to take myriad other militant positions on state and federal voting rights laws. Mr. Heard fit right in at the Advancement Project, having previously founded the Georgia Voter Empowerment Project, which describes its mission as increasing the “civic participation levels of progressive-minded Georgians.”

Amusingly, before moving to Washington, Mr. Heard had a nasty breakup with his plaintiff’s civil rights firm in Atlanta. He commenced litigation against his partners, who in turn claimed he was engaging in misconduct. Heard then sought criminal arrest warrants against his former partners, charging that they had engaged in false voter registration and voting by an unqualified elector, both felonies. The court declined to issue the warrants. South Carolina officials can ask Mr. Heard about these events during his review of the state’s redistricting submission; after all, he is the point of contact for the Voting Section.

Ms. McLeod has overcome substantial adversity in her personal life, and her story is an admirable one in many respects. But her liberal bona fides are equally genuine, and likely represent the primary reason why she was hired into the Voting Section under Eric Holder’s regime. Ms. McLeod came straight to the Justice Department after her graduation from law school at the University of Maryland, where she worked as a research assistant to Professor Sherrilyn Ifill, a radical academic whose writings and media appearances on voting rights and race issues take her well out of the mainstream.

Ms. McLeod also worked in the law school’s Post-Conviction Appellate Advocacy Clinic, assisting convicted felons with their direct appeals and habeas corpus challenges. As an undergraduate at East Carolina University, she interned for the SEIU Local’s New York Civic Participation Project, where she wrote articles favorable to labor unions. She also interned for the National Employment Law Project, drafting pro-union articles and other publications relating to workers’ rights. She is now one of the Voting Section’s points of contact for redistricting in Mississippi.

Catherine Meza. Ms. Meza, who contributed $450 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign before getting hired by the Voting Section, has a rich history of liberal advocacy. During law school at Berkeley, she interned for (i) the NAACP LDF, where she worked on voting rights and “economic justice” issues, (ii) Bay Area Legal Aid, (iii) the ACLU of Northern California, (iv) the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), (v) Centro Legal de la Raza, and (vi) the East Bay Community Law Center Workers’ Rights Clinic. She also worked as a legislative intern for Democratic Rep. (now Sen.) Robert Menendez of New Jersey as part of a fellowship with the liberal National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. On her resume, Meza proudly proclaims her membership in the American Constitution Society and her role as an Advisory Board Member of the Thelton Henderson Center for Social Justice. Talk about filling the whole bingo card! Meanwhile, while working a brief stint at the Fried Frank law firm after law graduation, she assisted on a pro bono case seeking to preserve the confidentiality of ID cards issued to illegal aliens by the city of New Haven, Connecticut, an effort to help illegal aliens avoid being prosecuted for violating federal law. She also helped draft a report for the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in which she suggested that the U.S. “government’s programs and policies continue to perpetuate segregation and concentrate poverty in communities of color.”

Kelli Reynolds: Ms. Reynolds arrived in the Voting Section having worked for several years as the Senior Redistricting Counsel and Assistant General Counsel at the NAACP. While there, she managed the organization’s National Redistricting Project, no doubt working closely with many of her now-colleagues in the Voting Section. She also boasts on her resume of her membership in the American Trial Lawyers Association (or, as that plaintiffs’ lawyers group now likes to euphemistically refer to itself, the “American Association for Justice”).

Elise Shore. Ms. Shore came to the Voting Section by way of the “Southern Coalition for Social Justice,” where she worked as a legal consultant focusing on “voting rights, immigrant rights, and other civil rights and social justice issues.” The far left-wing positions of this group are nicely summarized on its website. Ms. Shore also made a $1,000 contribution to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Before joining the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, she worked for more than two years as a Regional Counsel for MALDEF. There, she was an outspoken critic of Georgia’s voter ID law and well as its proof of citizenship requirements for voter registration (which, incidentally, have been found to be non-discriminatory by a federal court) and described how heartened she was that the Civil Rights Division had objected to the registration law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. But her joy must have been fleeting: the Division later capitulated and withdrew its objection after Georgia filed a federal declaratory judgment action. It will be interesting to see if Shore can put her politics to the side in her role as the Voting Section’s point of contact for all redistricting submissions in the state of Florida.

Jaye Sitton: Ms. Sitton first joined the Civil Rights Division during the Clinton administration, but left immediately before President Bush took office in order to become an international human rights lawyer. (This desire not to serve in a Republican administration seems to be a recurring theme among many of the individuals hired into the career ranks of the Division during the Clinton years.) Before recently returning to work as an attorney the Voting Section, she volunteered to work in North Carolina for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Sitton is a member of the “Intersex Society of North America,” an organization “devoted to systemic change to end shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgeries for people born with an anatomy that someone decided is not standard for male or female.” She also taught a course on “sexuality, sexual orientation, gender, and the law” at the College of William and Mary Law School, and wrote a law review article titled “(De)Constructing Sex: Transgenderism, Intersexuality, Gender Identity and the Law” for the William and Mary Law Journal.


Sharyn Tejani: Ms. Tejani is another activist who has come to the Voting Section to masquerade as a career civil servant. She also first joined the Civil Rights Division during the Clinton administration but left within two months of President Bush taking office. Her resume boasts of her work defending affirmative-action programs, i.e., racial quotas, during that earlier stint of employment. She recently returned, however, after having worked as a Senior Policy Counsel for the National Partnership for Women and Families, a left-wing organization that advocates greater abortion rights and is deeply involved in judicial nomination battles in favor of liberal candidates and in opposition to conservative candidates. Prior to that, Tejani served for more than three years as an advisor to one of the Democratic commissioners on the EEOC, and for three additional years as the Legal Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation. In her writings, she has advocated for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would require equal pay for men and women even when there are legitimate work- and experience-related reasons for those pay disparities. She also wrote an article for Ms. Magazine sharply criticizing any efforts by the Commission on Opportunity in Athletics to modify Title IX regulations to stop the discrimination that has occurred against men’s sport programs.

Justin Weinstein-Tull: Mr. Weinstein-Tull, a $250 contributor to President Obama’s 2008 campaign, was hired into the Voting Section following a clerkship for Judge Sidney Thomas, one of the most liberal judges on the Ninth Circuit. One can see why Judge Thomas was eager to have him in chambers. Indeed, Mr. Weinstein-Tull interned with the ACLU of Southern California, worked as a research associate at the liberal Urban Institute, and served as a fellow at the Congressional Hunger Center.

He also wrote a law review article for the University of Virginia Law Review in which he criticized the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzales v. Carhart – affirming the constitutionality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 — as a setback to a woman’s right to choose abortion. Mr. Weinstein-Tull will now be one of the Voting Section’s points of contact for redistricting submissions from the state of North Carolina.

Elizabeth Westfall: Last, but certainly not least, is Ms. Westfall. According to the Federal Election Commission website, she contributed nearly $7,000 to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign, contributed another $4,400 to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, contributed $2,000 to Wesley Clark’s presidential campaign in 2004, contributed $3,000 to John Kerry’s presidential campaign and compliance fund in 2004, contributed $500 to former Senate Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s PAC in 2004, and contributed $2,000 to Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2000.

In addition to this incredible funding of Democratic candidates, Westfall worked for six years at the far-left Advancement Project, directing its Voter Protection Program and managing its litigation and advocacy activities. She also previously served as a staff attorney at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in its Fair Housing Group, and worked on the Hill as a legislative assistant to then-Congressman Bill Richardson (D-NM).

On Westfall’s self-drafted Harvard alumni biography, she notes that she has testified before the U.S. Congress about supposed “barriers” to voter registration, “unwarranted” purging of the voter rolls, and voter caging. While those subjects may sound benign, in fact, the Advancement Project and the Lawyers Committee claim that common-sense reforms like voter ID or requiring proof of citizenship are “barriers” to voting and registration and that removing voters who have moved or otherwise become ineligible to vote is “unwarranted purging.”

“Vote caging,” an imaginary crime the Left dreamed up several years ago, faults any efforts by private parties to challenge the eligibility of voters when first-class mail sent to their registration addresses is returned by the U.S. Postal Service as undeliverable because they no longer live there. This despite the fact that federal law specifically authorizes election officials to use the USPS for that very purpose. Just the kind of neutral, detached attorney a state wants reviewing its redistricting submissions and applying the heavy hand of the federal government in voting rights enforcement actions. California’s redistricting submission will be in the hands of Ms. Westfall.

These 16 new attorneys, liberal partisans one and all, now join the career civil service ranks of an already heavily politicized Voting Section in the Civil Rights Division. Supervision, meanwhile, comes from Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes, whose public pronouncements about her refusal to apply the voting rights laws in an even-handed and race-neutral format are now infamous. The likelihood of the federal voting-rights laws being enforced in a fair and neutral fashion by this group of radicals is incredibly slim. Eric Holder clearly recognizes, as Ronald Reagan astutely observed, that “personnel is policy,” and Holder and his staff are doing everything in their power to ensure that the policies and legal positions advanced by the Civil Rights Division bureaucracy are in line with those of the Obama administration.

The real scandal, however, is the utter disregard by the so-called “mainstream media” and DOJ Inspector General’s Office of the blatant politicization of the hiring process in the Obama Civil Rights Division. I previously wrote about the absurdity of the attacks on Bush civil rights officials who were unfairly pilloried for supposedly hiring on the basis of political affiliation. I pointed out how the IG’s Office and the former Civil Rights Division attorney who spearheaded the Office of Professional Responsibility’s joint review glibly ignored all evidence that did not fit their biased narrative. A blind eye was turned towards the numerous liberal attorneys who were hired and promoted in the Voting Section during the Bush years.

Now, though, with the Obama Civil Rights Division virtually devoid of conservative hires, the press has gone silent and DOJ’s internal watchdogs have expressed nothing but indifference. This is particularly ironic given that almost all of these hires previously worked at organizations labeled as “liberal” by the joint OIG/OPR report attacking the Bush administration. So by the OIG/OPR’s own prior standards, the Obama administration has hired individuals exclusively from only one side of the political aisle. Once again, the one-way ratchet.

No apology will be forthcoming to the Bush Justice Department officials who were subjected to outrageous and unwarranted attacks, of course. But at least the public record is being fleshed out. Perhaps the Inspector General’s Office will redeem itself as a credible organization in its new probe of the Voting Section’s activities over the last 20 years. Whatever happens inside DOJ, though, at least the public is now aware that the almost daily rhetoric about neutrality that emanate from Eric Holder and his civil rights chief, Thomas Perez, is belied by their hiring decisions.

From the racially motivated dismissal of the New Black Panther Party lawsuit, to the partisan Section 5 objection to the change to nonpartisan elections in Kinston, N.C., on the offensive and patronizing grounds that blacks are not smart enough to know who to vote for without a party label next to the candidate’s name, to the baseless objection to Georgia’s citizenship verification requirements (later withdrawn by the Voting Section in the face of a federal lawsuit), to the dilatory and inept efforts to protect the voting rights of active military personnel, to the complete and total paucity of enforcement of Section 8 of the NVRA (requiring that voting rolls be purged of dead and ineligible voters), Eric Holder’s tenure has been distinguished by weighty evidence of partisan and ideological decision-making.

It seems that enforcement activity is governed predominantly by political, not legal, factors. And with the new radical ideologues in the Voting Section, it is difficult to imagine the situation improving any time soon. Americans deserve much better from their Department of Justice.

Hans von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation. 

First appeared in Pajamas Media