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The Justice Department Is Busy, and That's the Way It Should Be

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This post originally appeared on Campus Progress.

Last week was a busy one for the Obama administration’s Department of Justice. On Tuesday, following the announcement of a temporary injunction on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, the agency responded by issuing an appeal. "The great potential for significant additional medical breakthroughs is at risk if this research is halted pending the appeals process,” said Justice Department spokesperson Tracy Schmaler in a statement.

Then, late on Thursday, the DOJ announced it was suing Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio for failing to cough up documents in an investigation concerning his treatment of illegal immigrants. This decision came just two months after the department took a firm stand on immigration policy by halting SB 1070, Arizona’s immensely controversial new immigration law.

If this schedule sounds action-packed, that’s because it is — particularly when compared to the DOJ’s lackluster itinerary during George W. Bush’s later years. Certainly, Obama’s robust use of the agency — an approach that focuses largely on protecting civil liberties and sometimes employs a sweeping hand — has met criticism. But few can dispute its superiority to the climate of inefficiency and political sniping that persisted in the DOJ just two years ago.

Just how bad were things? Recall if you will the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He stepped down in 2007 amid charges that he had provided false testimony and participated in the illegal firing of nine U.S. attorneys. A subsequent investigation found that the firings were “inappropriate,” but not “criminal.”

Then, of course, there was the controversy swirling around Bush’s DOJ in 2008 after revelations surfaced that it had “deselected” nearly 80 percent of “highly qualified” but “liberal” applicants from its Honors Program. According to an investigation by Inspector General Glenn Fine, those in charge of picking new recruits for the highly competitive program unfairly weeded out applicants with “political or ideological affiliations” that were deemed too left-leaning. Following the report’s release, the agency was forced to investigate two of its personnel: Michael Elston, the Chief of Staff for the Deputy Attorney General; and Esther McDonald, a former DOJ lawyer. They were both found to be in violation of agency policies.

The lack of professionalism even persisted into Obama’s presidency, when J. Christian Adams, a former DOJ lawyer under Bush, accused the Obama administration of not adequately pursuing charges of voter intimidation against a group of Black Panthers. Adams, who was hired under dubious auspices, told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that his department had “ abetted wrongdoing and abandoned law-abiding citizens” by failing to act. His accusations later turned out to be bogus.

It’s difficult to say whether Obama’s Justice Department has re-tooled its priorities because of, or in spite of, the agency’s previous failings. But if head-on confrontations with a number of controversial issues — Arizona’s immigration law, stem cell research, Joe Arpaio’s policing, where to hold the trial of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad — is any indication, this agency is not shying away from tough, often unpopular decisions. Rather, and perhaps ironically, it seems to be taking as its motto a classic “Bushism:” Bring ‘em on!

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