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Attorney General Backs Anti-Busing Measure

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Washington--U.S. Attorney General William French Smith announced late last Thursday that, in his opinion, an anti-busing bill now before the House Judiciary Committee is constitutional.

The move appeared to clear the way for Congressional action on the bill. Representative Peter W. Rodino Jr., Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the House judiciary panel, had said last March that his committee would not act on it until the Attorney General had issued an opinion on its constitutionality.

Appellate Jurisdiction

Turning to another controversial issue, Mr. Smith also stated that his department "responsibly could, and if called upon to do so, would" support the constitutionality of legislation that would divest the Supreme Court of appellate jurisdiction over cases involving voluntary prayer in public schools or other public buildings. The Attorney General's opinions are advisory only.

Mr. Smith qualified his opinion regarding voluntary prayer in schools, however, noting that "even if legislation in this area could be enacted consistent with the Constitution," he would have concerns "as a policy matter about the withdrawal of a class of cases from the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court," the Justice Department said in a prepared statement.

The bill to which Mr. Smith referred is not President Reagan's proposal for a constitutional amendment permitting prayer in public schools, but a separate bill, sponsored by Senator Jesse A. Helms, which would strip the Supreme Court of its jurisdiction over school-prayer cases.

With regard to the school-prayer bill, the Attorney General concluded that Congress "may in some instances limit Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction," but that "it may not do so in a manner that intrudes upon the core functions of the Supreme Court. The integrity of our system of federal law depends upon a single court of last resort having a final say on the resolution of federal questions."

Mr. Smith announced his opinions on the anti-busing and school-prayer measures in letters to the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees.

The anti-busing measure, S. 951, was included as an amendment sponsored by Senators Helms, Republican of North Carolina, and J. Bennett Johnston, Democrat of Louisiana, to a bill authorizing funds for the Justice Department. The Johnston-Helms amendment would prohibit federal courts from ordering that children be bused more than 10 miles or 15 minutes from the school closest to their homes for purposes of racial desegregation.

The amendment also includes a provision prohibiting the Justice Department from using federal funds to bring or to maintain legal action that would require the busing of children for purposes of desegregation.

The school-prayer bill, S. 1742, was introduced by Senator Helms late last year and was immediately placed on the Senate calendar without being referred to committee.

The Senate passed the Justice Department authorization bill containing the anti-busing amendment last March by a 57-to-37 vote only after a prolonged filibuster by Senator Lowell P. Wiecker, Republican of Connecticut. The bill has since languished in the House Judiciary Committee.

John Russonello, a spokesman for Representative Rodino, said the Congressman had no comment on the substance of the Attorney General's letter. Representative Rodino, however, indicated he was pleased that Mr. Smith "finally gave the committee a response, allowing us to go ahead on this matter," Mr. Russonello said.

'Sound and Well Founded'

Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the Attorney General's opinion on the anti-busing bill "sound and well founded." The amendment, Senator Thurmond said, "is constitutional and a reasonable response to the question of forced busing in this country." He urged the House to act upon the matter this year.

In his letters to Representative Rodino and Senator Thurmond, the Attorney General said the provision restricting the jurisdiction of federal courts in school-desegregation cases was constitutional because it does not prohibit all busing and because it does not prevent state or federal courts from hearing desegregation cases.

Mr. Smith also said the section of the amendment barring the Justice Department from entering or bringing busing suits is constitutional because it "only restricts in a limited fashion [the department's] participation in the remedy stage."

"It is reasonably clear that that the [anti-busing] bill would be sustained on the basis of the rationales advanced by its proponents--primarily, the destructive effect of racial busing on quality education and its tendency in many communities to contribute more, not less, segregation in the schools," the Attorney General said.

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