Trump Administration Required Prospective Judges to Disclose Party Affiliation Then Rejected Democratic Candidates
Potentially Illegal Action Cuts Judicial Applicant Pool by Half as Board Works Through Years-long Backlogs of Claims by Injured Veterans
Partisan Screening Could Violate the Constitution and Federal Hiring Laws
Washington, DC— Today, VoteVets and Democracy Forward sued the Trump administration’s Department of Veterans Affairs for stonewalling the release of documents detailing the White House’s role in screening candidates for the VA’s Board of Veterans’ Appeals based on loyalty to the Republican Party. The suit follows reporting that the White House took the unprecedented step of requiring applicants to disclose their “party affiliation,” “political leanings,” and whether they published “an opinion piece in a conservative forum such as Breitbart News.” The administration then rejected three Democratic candidates and one independent while accepting only candidates who were Republican or had voted in GOP primaries.
The administration’s partisan litmus test for the historically nonpartisan Board of Veterans’ Appeals potentially violates the U.S. Constitution, federal hiring laws, and VA policy prohibiting government officials from retaliating against employees for personal political activity protected by the First Amendment. Furthermore, the Privacy Act prohibits agencies from maintaining records concerning individuals’ political activity and using those records to punish employees.
“America’s veterans deserve to have their grievances heard by judges chosen on merit alone,” said Democracy Forward Legal Policy Director Aman George. “If the Trump administration is imposing a political loyalty test for this nonpartisan board, we all need to know.”
For veterans, the appeals process is already very lengthy. During fiscal year 2018, veterans whose claims were resolved by the Board waited an average of four and a half years for their appeals to be resolved, and the Board expects to receive more than twice as many cases in fiscal year 2019 as it did in fiscal year 2018. The administration’s actions come at a time when the Board seeks to reduce the extraordinary delays in VA disability claim processing that have long plagued veterans seeking to get the help the President promised them.
“There is a place for partisanship, and the administration of veterans benefits is not it,” said Jon Soltz, Iraq War Veteran and Chair of VoteVets. “The Trump White House’s obsession with loyalty from all levels of government is incompatible with a free Republic, but more so, when it comes to giving veterans the benefits they deserve, would only hurt those who served our nation in uniform. We have every reason to believe that what we’re asking for would show that, and is the reason they’re trying to hide it from the public. We’re committed to making sure they don’t succeed.”
The Board has historically been a nonpartisan body, and its members are drawn largely from the ranks of career civil servant attorneys with the requisite, specialized legal experience to fairly adjudicate veterans’ claims. Eight recent applicants recommended for positions were career Board attorneys with six to 12 years of experience who had been serving as acting Veterans Law Judges due to the staffing shortage. All had been vetted by multiple interviewers and recommended for promotion by Board Chairman Cheryl L. Mason.
In November 2018, VoteVets and Democracy Forward submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Department of Veterans Affairs did not respond, in violation of federal law, necessitating this lawsuit to compel compliance. In December 2018, the groups also demanded the Veterans Affairs Inspector General investigate the administration’s politicization of the Veterans Law Judges selection process.
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.
Founded in 2006, and backed by over 600,000 supporters, the mission of VoteVets.org is to use public issue campaigns and direct outreach to lawmakers to ensure that troops abroad have what they need to complete their missions, and receive the care they deserve when they get home. VoteVets.org also recognizes veterans as a vital part of the fabric of our country and will work to protect veterans’ interests in their day-to-day lives. VoteVets.org is committed to the destruction of terror networks around the world – with force when necessary – to protect America. While non-partisan, the group is the largest progressive organization of veterans in America.