Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Blindered" Lawyers Subvert Blind Justice

I was more that a bit surprised to discover how little scathed the current Administration's Department of Justice had been by Chutzpah of the Week awards. The closest they seem to have come was on March 9, 2007, when they probably acted jointly with the Department of Defense to lay down the procedural groundwork for due process of law [sic] for the detainees in Guantanamo. The "sic" is, of course, related to the "chutzpah" and was focused on one of the ground rules (as had been reported by the BBC):

The hearings are being held with no defence lawyers present, and human rights groups say the panels of three military officials could consider evidence obtained by force.

Fortunately, while George W. Bush has been occupying himself with the legacy he wishes to leave, this turned out to be a good week to honor the Justice's Department's legacy for chutzpah.

The chutzpah in this case is not so much a matter of news as it is one of a skeleton that finally managed to get out of the closet. The story started to break last night that there was yet another brick in the wall of ideologically discriminatory practices in the Department of Justice, particularly under the watch of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Here is how Stephanie Kirchgaessner covered it (from Washington) for the Financial Times:

Officials at the US Department of Justice illegally favoured conservative candidates when they made hiring decisions for the department’s top recruitment programme, according to a report by the DoJ’s inspector general.

The findings marked the first time that allegations of illegal hiring and firing practices, cited for some time by former DoJ officials and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill, were confirmed by an independent report. The review cited numerous instances in which qualified candidates were passed over for jobs because they were perceived as politically liberal.

I once gave a lecture on semiotics during which I joked about Bush's inability to interpret a sign in any reading other than the most literal one, probably as an ironic corollary of all of his readings being faith-based. Thus, the very construct of a symbol, which we may regard as a sign being employed deliberately for some figurative interpretation, was alien to him. In this case the irony is even greater, since the very nature of the Department of Justice is embodied in one of the most famous symbols in the world (by which I mean frequently recognized beyond our own borders).

The symbol, of course, is that of blindfolded Justice; and it would be fair to say that much of its global reputation comes from our having appropriated it from Great Britain. The blindfold basically symbolizes the abstract ideal of argumentation, the ability to arrive at a judgment through nothing but evidence and the ability to use that evidence to both warrant and refute assertions that are brought to the attention of the court by lawyers and witnesses. The blindfold even has a literal interpretation: As long as Justice can hear the development and conclusion of an argument, she has no need of her eyes.

Thus, one way to think about the DoJ hiring practices that have now come to light is that they have replaced the idealism of Justice's blindfold with ideological blinders that were assumed to be necessary for both doing DoJ business and for selecting new colleagues to assist in that process. Of course those blinders have extended to practices beyond DoJ operations, as we have seen in some of the recent Supreme Court opinions, regardless of what decision happened to prevail. However, in this case we should focus on the Executive Branch, particularly in light of the reputation the President has acquired for going to war against the Constitution with almost as much energy (and probably more success) than in his efforts towards a Global War on Terror. Thus, the Chutzpah of the Week award for this week will go (unshared) to the Justice Department for its legacy of hiring practices; and it should make a nice complement to all of those awards already sitting in the Oval Office!

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