Justice Department moves

IT WAS A NICE gesture, President Bush's nomination of two African-Americans as important deputies in the Justice Department.

It shows he at least acknowledges the rancorous opposition to John Ashcroft's ascension to the attorney general's office.


But it's not an antidote to Mr. Ashcroft's extremism. Black faces don't necessarily equal progressive minds. And Mr. Ashcroft's throwback views on civil rights and other social justice issues could still badly taint the Justice Department's mission.

Mr. Bush nominated Larry D. Thompson, an African-American lawyer, to be No. 2 at Justice. Mr. Thompson helped advise Clarence Thomas -- no friend to progressive causes -- during his tumultuous 1992 Senate confirmation hearings.


Mr. Bush also nominated Charles A. James to head the Justice Department's important antitrust division. Mr. James formerly served in President George H.W. Bush's administration, and also has a strongly conservative history.

It's impossible to predict what either of these two will do in their new jobs, but we'll go out on a limb to forecast this much: Neither is likely to be waving the civil rights flag or clamoring for the protection of abortion rights in the halls of the Justice Department.

The point is that while racial diversity is admirable, it will take more than picking a few African-Americans to continue some of the Justice Department's important work.

Mr. Bush must build a Justice Department that keeps civil rights andreproductive rights -- to name just two issues -- at the top of its priority list. It is imperative that he select an assistant attorney general for civil rights who is committed to equal protection and enforcement -- and has the freedom to do the job properly.

A president and attorney general put on notice by strong opposition should keep that in mind when taking the next steps.