When Officials Clash: Implementation of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act

When Officials Clash: Implementation of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act

When Officials Clash: Implementation of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act

When Officials Clash: Implementation of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act


The Reagan Adminstration justified its civil rights enforcement by claiming an electoral mandate to reduce government. The Administration employed an administrative strategy to fulfill this asserted mandate, illustrating the conventional wisdom that the strategy enhances political responsiveness. But responsiveness to popular will is one democratic value, while protection of minority rights another. In the case of the administrative strategy to enforce the law protecting civil rights of the institutionalized, career employees within the Reagan Justice Department reacted forcefully to the change in policy direction, believing their action was critical to protecting basic human rights because of the powerlessness of the affected group.

Holt examines how the Reagan Administration implemented its strategy of limited enforcement and the varied responses of the career employees, including internal and external criticism, mass departure, and even sabotage of some actions. A survey of careerists and interviews with both political and career employees provide detailed accounts of the clash that ensued. In addition to providing valuable information on how and when an administrative strategy can best be employed, Holt identifies some of the hidden costs of a tightly controlled bureaucracy. An apparently successful policy, which minimizes the involvement of experienced career employees, can have an adverse long term effect. A valuable study for all students and researchers of public policy formation and implementation, the contemporary presidency, and civil rights.


From August 1983 until September 1984, 1 worked as an attorney in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, my first job as a young attorney just out of law school. At the time I arrived, the Section was in the midst of a maelstrom of controversy between careerists within the agency who strongly advocated vigorous enforcement of civil rights law, and political appointees bent on curtailing the Department’s historical level of activity. Conflict was rampant and departures frequent. At the end of my one-year tenure, I had been in the Section longer than all but four of the line attorneys still remaining.

This research is an effort to examine the activities of that time, as well as to shed light on the management style of the Reagan Administration, at least with respect to appointees like William Bradford Reynolds who remained committed throughout the Administration to the fundamental principles upon which Reaganism was founded. It is meant to neither praise nor indict, but rather to provide an analytical framework for understanding the lessons of that time and for applying those lessons in the future.

I was inspired to pursue this project by the thankless work of many Justice Department attorneys. My efforts would have been far less substantive without the assistance of the attorneys who contributed their time, particularly Arthur Peabody, Robert Dinerstein, Robinsue Frohboese, and John MacCoon. Their inspiring dedication gives hope to those who depend upon the unrecognized and unrewarded work of civil servants. My doctoral advisor, Dr. Michael R. Fitzgerald, and committee, Lawrence Dessem, Dr. Patricia Freeland, Dr. Lilliard Richardson, and particularly Dr. Otis Stephens, Jr., deserve thanks for . . .

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