The U.S. Department of Justice is in talks to settle a lawsuit alleging department officials illegally screened job applicants based on their politics and ideology.
At a hearing this morning before U.S. District Senior Judge Thomas Hogan, lawyers for the Justice Department and the plaintiffs said they had been in settlement negotiations over the past few months and were optimistic about reaching an agreement. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit revived the case in March, reversing a federal trial judge's 2011 order dismissing the case.
The remaining plaintiffs in the case are two lawyers who unsuccessfully applied to the Justice Department's highly competitive Honors Program in 2006. They sued the government in Washington federal district court in 2008 following the release of an internal DOJ report finding top officials impermissibly relied on political or ideological information about applicants.
Brad Rosenberg, an attorney in the Justice Department's civil division, said during today's hearing that the parties had made "substantial progress" in reaching a settlement. If direct negotiations failed, he said, mediation could be an option.
The plaintiffs' lawyer, Daniel Metcalfe, executive director of the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at American University Washington College of Law, told Hogan there was "every reason to believe" they would reach an agreement before the next court appearance in late January.
The lawyers in the case didn’t talk about what a potential settlement in the case would look like.
The case arose "from a dark chapter in the United States Department of Justice's history," Judge John Bates, the previous judge assigned to the case, said in a 2011 opinion. Bates dismissed the lawsuit after finding the plaintiffs couldn't prove they were directly harmed by alleged violations of the federal Privacy Act by Justice Department officials.
In March, the D.C. Circuit said that given the department's destruction of records related to the case, a jury should be allowed to hear evidence on whether the remaining plaintiffs were "harmed by creation and use of the destroyed records."
In 2010, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said during a deposition he was "disappointed" he didn't stop political affiliations from being part of the Honors Program hiring process.
The next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 23.