WASHINGTON -- Bill Lann Lee, President Clinton's choice for the nation's top civil rights post, is a highly respected legal mind, a first-generation Chinese-American from a modest background who is admired even by those who have opposed him in California courtrooms.
So how can Lee's nomination to be assistant attorney general for civil rights be in trouble?
The answer is that his appointment has turned into the latest national battleground over affirmative action, a doctrine that is under siege across the country.
As a high-ranking lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Lee has long promoted the use of racial and gender preferences that many Americans oppose. Just this week, the Supreme Court left intact California's ban on race and sex preferences in state education and employment. Lee had fought the measure, known as Proposition 209, attacking it as unconstitutional.
"It's time to take a stand against policies that are ripping America apart," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who postponed a scheduled vote yesterday on Lee's nomination in the Senate Judiciary Committee until Thursday. "I guess we're going to have to do it on the Bill Lee nomination, and I'm prepared to do it."
Hatch, the committee chairman, put off the vote at the request of committee Democrats, who want more time to try to rally support for Lee's nomination.
"We don't come here to sound the bugle of retreat," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. "This is a call to arms."
Some liberal groups were already responding to that call yesterday.
"What happened to Bill Lee is an attack on affirmative action," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for the Feminist Majority.
Conservatives do not dispute that characterization, but argue that their resistance to the Lee nomination amounts to a legitimate policy difference between the two political parties.
"It's nothing personal against Mr. Lee," said Terry Eastland, a conservative critic of affirmative action. "Clinton campaigns as a guy who has deep doubts about affirmative action, but his Justice Department has simultaneously been protecting and defending every preference program. Republicans have decided enough is enough."
Battles in the past
Similar battles over nominees to be assistant attorney general for civil rights have been fought in the Clinton administration, as well as in the administrations of George Bush and Ronald Reagan.
"This job has been a place of political trouble," Eastland said yesterday. "It's a fault line over a sharply contended and extremely controversial issue."
A backlash had begun brewing against affirmative action even before racial preferences became an entrenched element of some corporate hiring practices, university admissions guidelines and federal procurement rules.
Today, in the name of diversity, affirmative action policies are sometimes applied not only to African-Americans, but also to women, Asians, Hispanics, even immigrants.
Even while defending such practices, Clinton has acknowl- edged that in some instances they have gone too far. He has contended, however, that the solution is "mend it, don't end it."
Clinton rescinded the nomination of his first choice for the civil rights job, Lani Guinier, who had been attacked by conservatives as a "quota queen."
After positioning himself in the political center on this issue, the president appointed Deval Patrick, an NAACP lawyer, to the post. But Patrick's office proceeded to broadly embrace affirmative action in a host of high-profile cases.
For that reason, Lee was questioned closely during his committee confirmation hearings about his views on affirmative action. Lee, 48, has worked as a civil rights lawyer for 23 years and has most recently served as the Western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, based in Los Angeles.
Liberals, such as Wade Henderson, executive director of the U.S. Conference on Civil Rights, say that Lee's answers during his testimony were "very measured and careful and completely in sync with the president's own views."
Indeed, Democrats argue that as president, Clinton deserves the right to have a civil rights chief whose approach to affirmative action essentially reflects his own.
But Republicans said they found in Lee's career history a troubling and racially divisive view of the law.
"While I believe Mr. Lee to be a man of honor and high ideals, his record reflects that he is also an activist lawyer who has demonstrated a distorted view of the Constitution and the nation's civil rights laws," Hatch said.
To Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, Lee's testimony showed an "alarming allegiance to racial preferences and a disturbing disregard for the Constitution."
As Lee's chances appeared to sink, frustrated liberals lashed out. Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry asserted that Hatch was under the sway of "right-wing crazies" who wanted to "turn back the clock" on civil rights.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson contended that the criticism of Lee was racist. "This does not pass the smell test of Asian bashing," Jack- son told reporters. "If he were not competent, if there were evidence of a misdeed, there could be some basis for debate. [But] he meets every ethical and academic qualification."
Such talk rankles Republicans, who argue that in their opposition to preferences, they -- and not the Democrats -- are in step with the Supreme Court and, according to opinion polls, with the majority of white Americans and about half of African-Americans as well.
"For somebody to demagogue and say this is racial is really out of line," Hatch said. "Not only out of line -- it's reprehensible."
Some prominent Democrats agree and have risen to defend Hatch's character even while striving to salvage the Lee nomination.
"I have known Senator Hatch since I first came to Washington, and I have known him to be a man of principle and integrity," said Attorney General Janet Reno. "Although we disagree on this matter, I know he is taking action on principle."
Focused on rescue
At the same time, Democrats say they remain focused on rescuing the Lee nomination. During the committee hearing, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, recounted the bigotry his father had suffered as an Irish-Catholic youth who had to support his family.
"At that time he was faced with signs which said, 'No Irish need apply' or 'No Catholic need apply,' " Leahy said yesterday, his voice choked with emotion.
"At that time there was not a civil rights law. There was not a Bill Lann Lee or anybody else willing to enforce a civil rights law. Had there been, my father's life would have been a lot different. I do not want to see us backtrack on our civil rights laws."
Pub Date: 11/07/97