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Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has his work cut out for him cleaning up the mess the Bush administration left at the Justice Department. Having begun by appointing a special prosecutor to investigate CIA abuses in the torture of terror suspects and hiring veteran career attorneys to oversee the department's Office of Professional Responsibility and Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, one of his top priorities must be reorganizing the agency's long-suffering civil rights division so that it can return to its traditional mission of enforcing anti-discrimination laws and protecting the rights of minorities.

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Under Mr. Holder's predecessors, the civil rights division suffered grievously from political meddling in high-profile cases and hiring practices that ignored merit-based Civil Service rules in favor of ideological litmus tests which allowed minimally qualified partisan hacks to win top jobs. The predictable result was that dedicated career attorneys were demoralized and shunted aside; more than 200 of them left or were forced out over the last eight years. Mr. Holder plans to request an additional $22 million for the agency that will allow him to hire capable replacements for these valued employees without igniting the partisan furor that would come from having to weed out scores of incompetent Bush-era partisans who now enjoy Civil Service protection.

In addition to expanding the division's staff, Mr. Holder wants to shift its focus back to long-standing efforts on voting rights, housing and employment discrimination, discriminatory bank lending practices and the drawing of new voting districts after next year's census. He also wants to replace his predecessor's narrow emphasis on individual cases of intentional discrimination with a broader approach that takes into account systemic bias and policies that have a disparate impact on minorities.

None of this is going to be easy, and Republican critics of change in the Senate are already coalescing around opposition to Mr. Holder's choice to head the civil rights division, Maryland Labor, Licensing and Regulation Secretary Thomas E. Perez. Mr. Perez, a former Montgomery County Councilman and civil rights attorney in the Clinton Justice Department, is an experienced lawyer and administrator who has excellent qualifications for the job.

He also served on the board of CASA de Maryland, an immigrant rights group that criticized a 2007 Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency operation in Baltimore that targeted Latino day laborers. But GOP senators have pounced on that incident as evidence that Mr. Perez is too liberal on immigration; they've used it as a pretext to put his nomination as deputy attorney general for civil rights on hold, possibly postponing for months the administration's efforts to reorganize the division.

Let's be clear about what happened in that raid. According to a report about the January, 2007 incident, ICE agents were told by their supervisor to go out and "bring more bodies in" and "were ordered to seek additional arrests that day due to managerial pressure to produce statistics." The went to a Fells Point 7-Eleven and, the store's surveilance video shows, they targeted Latino men while ignoring blacks and whites, including a white man in a pickup truck who had come to hire day laborers. One of those detained was a janitor who was on his way to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where his son was undergoing treatment for cancer. If Mr. Perez objects to those tactics, all the better.

But the matter is a distraction, since immigration law is a relatively minor aspect of the civil rights division's work, and in any case, policy on the issue is set by the Department of Homeland Security and enforced by the ICE. But the tactics of obfuscation and delay nevertheless pose a problem for the Obama administration at a time when it finds itself under siege on multiple fronts. Moreover, government personnel rules prohibit reassigning mid-level staffers at the division for 120 days after Mr. Perez is confirmed. That means even when Mr. Perez finally gets down to work, it could be months before he can put his own people in key positions. The president and the Senate's Democratic leadership must find a way to break this procedural logjam by confirming Mr. Perez as quickly as possible so that he can get on with the reforms needed to put the civil rights division back on track.

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