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Politics in U.S. hiring: When is it improper?

At the Justice Department, clear lines were crossed, report says.

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Politics plays a part in hiring decisions throughout Washington. But by law, internal rules, and tradition, the selection of career officials at the Justice Department is supposed to be blind to matters of party.

That's because the application of federal justice is intended to be nonpartisan. Citizens have a right to expect equal treatment under the law, without regard to their political beliefs, registration, or yard signs.

Thus, by letting politics dictate the appointment of career prosecutors, immigration officials, and other government lawyers, senior aides to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may have crossed a red line, say some legal experts. And if the details in a just-released internal report are true, these aides crossed that line by a lot.

"Both Democratic and Republican administrations in the past have operated with the understanding that the Department of Justice in its career hiring process should not be politicized," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, in Virginia.

This issue will be in the congressional spotlight Wednesday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing focusing on the new report, produced jointly by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General and its Office of Professional Responsibility.

According to the report, released July 28, for nearly two years top advisers to then-Attorney General Gonzales discriminated against applicants for jobs who weren't Republican or conservative.

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