Justice Official, Congressmen Debate U.S. Policies on Busing,
Washington--Under hostile questioning from Democratic members of a House subcommittee, the Reagan Administration's chief civil-rights official last week vigorously defended the Administration's anti-busing policy.
William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said that the Justice Department's practice of seeking desegregation remedies other than the mandatory busing of students "is not evidence of any decision to countenance unlawful school segregation. This policy involves turning away from a particular remedy, which we believe has proved ill-advised and ineffective," Mr. Reynolds told members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights.
During nearly three hours of debate, Mr. Reynolds also criticized civil-rights advocates who have accused the Justice Department of failure to enforce properly federal civil-rights laws. He presented the committee with a 55-page rebuttal of charges leveled against the department in February by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of 157 labor, civil-rights, and religious groups.
The civil-rights groups, who made their charges in a 75-page report, "set out to portray the Department of Justice as inattentive to civil-rights enforcement and insensitive to minority interests. The impression thus conveyed is completely untrue," the department's response said.
Another report, attacking Administration "strategies and actions" on desegregation issues and strongly supporting busing, was released two weeks ago by the subcommittee, including the dissenting views of Republican members. (See Education Week, April 7.)
The subcommittee chairman, Democratic Representative Don Edwards of California, told Mr. Reynolds that "your Administration is well on the way to being the most negative since the inception of the civil-rights division" in the Justice Department in 1957.
Representative Edwards, who has served on the committee for 20 years, said the Administration's refusal to support busing "has echoes of Plessy v. Ferguson"--a charge also made by the civil-rights groups. Mr. Edwards was referring to the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 that upheld the practice of maintaining separate public accomodations for whites and blacks.
"I've heard the criticism that we're harkening back to 'separate-but-equal' [schools]," Mr. Reynolds said. "But implicit in that assump-tion is the state imposing barriers. We will not uphold barriers."
Mr. Reynolds cited as evidence of the Administration's efforts to achieve desegregation through voluntary programs his department's successful attempts to settle its desegregation suit against the Chicago school system. He predicted that the Chicago desegregation plan, which involves no mandatory busing, "will result in a greater degree of desegregation ... than could have been accomplished under a mandatory busing plan."
"Given the demographic situation in Chicago, the real opportunity for desegregation rests with the kind of plan we have proposed. If we had pushed for mandatory busing, the few whites who remain in the school system would leave the community," he said.
Representative Harold Washington, an Illinois Democrat who represents the predominantly black South Side of Chicago, countered that voluntary desegregation plans in other school systems have not worked. He quoted from a brief filed by the Justice Department in the Chicago case that said the department was only "cautiously optimistic" that voluntary desegregation would work in his city.
'Paper Desegregation Plan'
"When you have a paper desegregation plan, it's not going to work," responded Mr. Reynolds. "If the endorsement is there from the local community, and effort and commitment are behind it, a much different effort is going to go on. The school board and the people are going to have to live with it," he said.
Mr. Washington accused the Administration of fostering "a new increase in racism in this country. It takes subtle forms. You give the impression that you are not interested in enforcement."
Along with criticism from the majority members of the subcommittee, Mr. Reynolds received support for the Administration's policy from the subcommittee's Republican members.
Representative F. James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, said he was "concerned that the bipartisan approach to civil-rights issues is evaporating. I'm not sure what motivates the civil-rights community, politics or substance."
Another Republican representative, Dan Lungren of California, said he agreed with a statement by Mr. Reynolds that busing can have a detrimental effect on race relations. And Representative Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican whose district includes the suburbs west of Chicago, said that "a survey conducted by the Chicago Board of Education showed that 51 percent of black parents are against busing. We're in an interesting era of psychological warfare," he said, referring to civil-rights groups' support of busing.
Chairman Edwards also asked Mr. Reynolds whether the department would be willing to issue a legal opinion on the anti-busing amendments attached to a bill that was passed by the Senate last month and is currently pending before the House Judiciary Committee.
The Judiciary Committee chairman, Peter W. Rodino Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, has asked the U.S. Attorney General for an opinion on the amendments' constitutionality--particularly that of one provision sponsored by Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Democrat of Louisiana, that would strictly limit the powers of the federal courts to order busing.
Overturn Existing Orders
Other amendments would forbid the Justice Department to join desegregation lawsuits that could lead to busing, while permitting the department to enter lawsuits that would overturn existing busing orders.
Mr. Reynolds replied that "an opinion should be issued shortly" on Senator Johnston's amendment. He also said the department was "concerned" about the provision permitting the department to seek the re-opening of desegregation suits that have resulted in busing orders.
The Johnston amendment, which was the subject of a nine-month filibuster before it finally was passed by the Senate on March 2, has been opposed by the American Bar Asso-ciation and the organization representing the chief justices of the state supreme courts.
Last week, two bills containing provisions similar to that amendment's were denounced by four former attorneys general' and three former solicitors general.
The bills, sponsored by Senators Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, and John P. East, Republican of North Carolina, would forbid federal judges to order the busing of children to schools outside their neighborhoods.
In a letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering the measures, the former Justice Department officials said that the Congress does not have the constitutional authority to prevent the courts from enforcing Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case in which the Supreme Court, reversing its Plessy decision, declared separate schools to be inherently unequal.
The letter was signed by former Attorneys General Benjamin R. Civiletti, Elliott L. Richardson, Nicholas DeB. Katzenbach, and Ramsey Clark, and by former Solicitors General Wade H. McCree Jr., Erwin N. Griswold, and J. Lee Rankin.