Fewer Black, Female Lawyers at Justice Under Ashcroft
Published on Tuesday, December 23, 2003 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
Justice Dept.'s Diversity Issues
Records Show Percentages of Female, Black Attorneys Falling Under Ashcroft
by Tom Brune

WASHINGTON -- Reversing the trend of the 1990s, the percentages of black and women attorneys at the Justice Department have declined under Attorney General John Ashcroft, according to the first snapshot of diversity at Justice in two years.

The presence of black attorneys at Justice slipped in each of the past three years, and the proportion of women attorneys has risen, dropped and risen again, but still falls short of its September 2000 level, according to federal personnel records.

Justice's percentage of white attorneys has risen, while the overall proportion of minority attorneys - combining blacks, Asian-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians - has been flat since 2001.

That is the year Ashcroft became attorney general, replacing Janet Reno, who in contrast oversaw a steady rise in minority and women attorneys over her eight years in office, records show.

The downward trend raises concerns about the Justice Department's historic role as a leader in civil rights and minority employment, said David Wilkins, director of Harvard Law School's Program on the Legal Profession.

"It's a very worrisome development," Wilkins said. "At a minimum, this ought to be something the Justice Department should be concerned about."

Justice spokesman Mark Corallo said, "We are concerned about declines in certain groups. We wouldn't have initiated a first-of-its-kind diversity initiative if we didn't have concerns."

The initiative, announced in February, seeks to retain minority, women and other young attorneys by assigning them senior-staff mentors and by setting up a $300,000 fund to help pay off law school loans, he said.

But the initiative, which still lacks a diversity coordinator, has not yet had an impact, Corallo said.

Corallo declined to release any statistics on diversity at Justice. The department has not issued its usual annual diversity reports or any other data for this year or last year.

In October, officials released a June 2002 KPMG Consulting report on attorney diversity in 2001, but only after blacking out half of it.

Corallo blamed the lack of data or reports on restrictions arising from a reverse-discrimination lawsuit against the federal government as well as a still-developing federal management directive on agency diversity reports.

For a current snapshot of Justice diversity, Newsday obtained federal Office of Personnel Management records for attorneys by race, ethnicity and gender for 2000 through June 2003, as well as Justice's own annual diversity reports from 1997 to 2001.

From 2000 to June 2003, black lawyers declined annually, from 7.8 percent to 7.5 percent of Justice's attorney work force, the data shows. Women lawyers fell from 37.6 percent to 37.5 percent of the work force.

In contrast, from 1997 to 2000, black lawyers rose from 7.2 percent to 7.8 percent and women from 36.4 percent to 37.6 percent of Justice's attorneys.

Asian-American and Hispanic representation among Justice attorneys has varied. From 2000 to June 2003, Asian-Americans fell from 3.3 percent to 3.1 percent and Hispanics remained at 4.8 percent.

For black attorneys, Justice remains ahead of large law firms, but it ranks only in the middle of the pack among federal agencies, according to a federal survey of minority attorneys and the KPMG report.

Justice trails large law firms and ranks as the fourth worst in the percentage of women attorneys among all federal agencies, ahead only of the departments of Defense, Army and Navy, the KPMG report said.

Many minority attorneys left Justice in Ashcroft's first year, including a third of the minority lawyers in the Civil Rights and Criminal divisions, the KPMG report found. Since then, personnel records show Justice has hired black attorneys at a lower rate than lawyers of any other race or ethnicity.

Among assistant U.S. attorneys, who represent the biggest share of Justice lawyers, black attorneys have dropped from 8.8 percent to 8.6 percent.

And at Main Justice, with the second largest number of attorneys in criminal, civil, civil rights, environment and other key divisions, the number of black attorneys dropped by 10 and the percentage dipped from 6.4 to 5.8.

Experts, consultants and Justice officials offer varying reasons for the drop in black attorneys.

Wilkins, civil rights activists and some Justice officials say some black attorneys may not be comfortable with the Bush administration's conservative policies.

Citing affirmative action and civil rights enforcement as examples, Wilkins said, "It certainly wouldn't be surprising, given this administration's relative hostility to some of the issues considered important by many blacks."

Another possible reason is the perception by many minority attorneys at Justice of unfairness in hiring, promotions and assignments, as well as harassment in the workplace, according to the KPMG report.

Corallo blamed the decline in part to competition from the better-paying private sector.

But Wilkins also acknowledged that the pattern found at Justice is also found across the legal profession: "The percentages of blacks in many law firms and law schools are stagnating or declining."

Few explanations were offered for the decrease in women attorneys, to 37.2 percent in 2002 before rising again to 37.5 percent this year.

But records show that under Reno, Justice had an aggressive policy of hiring women. About 43 percent of new attorneys hired were women, and in 1998, 70 percent of new assistant U.S. attorneys were women.

Under Ashcroft, about 38 percent of all new attorneys hired at Justice were women, records show.

Although the KPMG report said women lawyers did not leave the department as quickly as minority attorneys, records for 2002 show one of the largest departure rates for women in years.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.