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
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
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. …