THE FIGHT against President Clinton's nominee to head the Justice Department's civil rights division has gathered steam with the Supreme Court ruling that the anti-affirmative action measure, Proposition 209, is constitutional. Bill Lann Lee is well qualified for the position, having spent most of his career representing civil rights organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. But those associations are being used against him.
Senate Republicans who have blocked his nomination since July treat Mr. Lee like some antichrist who must not be allowed a position of higher authority. They see the Supreme Court decision as validating the holiness of their mission. Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced Monday he would oppose Mr. Lee, which means the nomination may not pass his panel.
Opponents say Mr. Lee's previous support of affirmative action means he would use the Office of Civil Rights to fight Proposition 209 and similar measures in other states. They ignore Mr. Lee's offer to recuse himself from any involvement in administration decisions regarding Proposition 209. All they care about is leverage to get President Clinton to back down from his support of affirmative action.
The Lee bashers got a boost Monday when the Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling upholding California's initiative that outlaws race, gender or ethnic preferences in state hiring, education or contracts. Attorney General Janet Reno has argued Mr. Lee's nomination should not be held hostage to political disagreements over policy. But Republicans say Democrats similarly blocked Justice nominations of conservatives in GOP administrations.
The precedent that President Clinton set in abandoning the Lani Guinier nomination during his first year in office does not bode well for Mr. Lee. Mr. Clinton should not give up this time. Mr. Hatch says Mr. Lee can't distinguish between being an NAACP litigator and being an assistant attorney general. Similar criticism of Thurgood Marshall was made before he became the first black Supreme Court justice. He proved the critics wrong. Mr. Lee should be afforded the same opportunity.
Pub Date: 11/05/97