Vacancy in Civil-Rights Post Irks Activists Justice Officials Rebut Claims That Unfilled Position Hurts Cause

Article excerpt

THE LACK of a civil-rights chief at the Justice Department, 11 months after President Clinton took office, has hampered efforts to fight discrimination against women and minorities during the administration's first year, civil-rights activists say.

Officials at the department, from Attorney General Janet Reno on down, contend that they have been able to compensate for the White House's failure to fill the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Reno and Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell have assumed some responsibilities of the civil-rights chief.

And they say the acting civil-rights chief, James P. Turner, has welcomed Clinton's and Reno's determination to enforce civil-rights laws more aggressively than in the Bush and Reagan administrations. "I'm very proud of what the division is doing," Reno said recently of the civil-rights office.

But lawyers and civil-rights activists from outside the department paint a different picture. They contend that the 479 staff members in the civil-rights division, while more vigorous than during the Reagan-Bush era, are still too slow and ineffective in combating discrimination.

They suspect that some Reagan-Bush appointees are trying to subvert Clinton's initiatives. "There are people hostile to civil rights who are still there, who are impacting decisions," said a civil-rights lawyer. "It is clear from where I sit that if anybody were trying to vigorously enforce civil rights, this is not the way it would be done."

Like most department critics, the lawyer asked not to be named, saying he must maintain a cordial working relationship with the department's civil-rights division.

"They've been rudderless now for a long time," said a civil-rights activist. "It's had a negative impact on the morale of the civil-rights staff, and it's caused many delays in decision-making, because there is no one there to do it."

Laura Murphy Lee, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the problem was compounded by vacancies in several other high-level civil-rights posts, including the director of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

"What you have now is a patchwork quilt of priorities" in federal agencies "depending on the commitment of a particular Cabinet official," Lee said. "With the president unable to articulate a vision for race, gender and disability policy, these agencies are left to their own devices."

Turner, a soft-spoken 28-year veteran of the Justice Department, said the criticism was undeserved.

"If you look at the level of work that has been done, it is clear that we have not idly been sitting around trying to suppress civil-rights enforcement. We've had a very active year," Turner said.

But Turner said he had not served as the passionate, visible advocate that civil-rights leaders would like to see. They had hoped to find such an advocate in Lani Guinier before her nomination was scuttled by complaints that her writings were too radical.

Clinton's next choice, District of Columbia Corporation Counsel John Payton, withdrew from consideration this month after black members of Congress said he was too conservative. No new candidate has emerged as a front-runner.

Asked about his efforts to speak out on civil-rights issues, Turner made a self-deprecating joke: "I'm not in the profile business. I have such an ugly profile that I try to keep it down. …