Antibusing Measure May Be Pushed In Lame-Duck Session, Panel Warns
Washington--A new civil-rights watchdog group warns in its first report that conservative forces in the Congress may take advantage of the upcoming lame-duck session to push through pending legislation that would strictly limit the authority of federal courts to issue busing orders in school-desegregation cases.
Enactment of the antibusing measure, which is sponsored by Senators Jesse A. Helms, Republican of North Carolina, and J. Bennett Johnston, Democrat of Louisiana, would violate the constitutional principle of the separation of powers, according to the report by the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights. The group was organized last July by the former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Arthur S. Flemming.
The report adds that the measure threatens to "close the doors to equal educational opportunity," and would "reopen racial conflict in communities where the matter of public school integration has been long and successfully resolved."
"We feel that this amendment not only threatens advancements in desegregation but that it also threatens the Constitution and the entire federal judicial system," Mr. Flemming said during a recent press conference at which the report was released.
Asked to Resign
Mr. Flemming, a former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare during the Eisenhower Administration, was asked by President Reagan late last year to resign from his position as chairman of the federal civil-rights commission, a post he had held since 1972.
"I've been in Washington for many years now, and I feel that this proposal poses a more serious threat to the nation's federal court system than" did President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "court-packing" scheme of 1937, Mr. Flemming added.
The proposed Helms-Johnston amendment, which is attached to a bill authorizing Justice Department expenditures in the current fiscal year, contains two main sections. The first would prohibit all federal judges from ordering that students be bused for purposes of desegregation more than five miles or 15 minutes from their homes and would apply retroactively to existing pupil-transportation plans.
The second provision would prohibit the Justice Department from bringing or maintaining any action that would require the busing of students to schools other than the ones closest to their homes.
The Justice Department bill, S951, was approved by the Senate last March. Since then, it has remained bottled up in the House Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties, and the Administration of Justice.
But the authorization bill--and its anti-busing attachments--may have to be acted on during the Congress's post-election session, said Mr. Flemming.
"The main purpose of the session, presumably, is for Congress to pass its appropriations bills," he explained, "and Congress is not supposed to appropriate money for the Justice Department unless it authorizes those appropriations first."
If the bill does surface on the floor of the House, Mr. Flemming added, its final resolution "is very much in doubt."
"Civil-rights advocates have yet to win a significant victory in getting Congress to reject anti-civil-rights riders to appropriations bills," he said. "That's why there's such a sense of urgency about this amendment."
William L. Taylor, the commission's executive director, added that this sense of urgency has been heightened because Reagan Administration officials are moving "in concert with this proposed legislation."
"For the first time in my recollection we have an Administration that is actively associating itself with" the anti-busing movement, he said.
In late September, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, William Bradford Reynolds, issued a statement reaffirming the Administration's belief that busing "has failed to work in school district after school district." The statement also reaffirmed the Justice Department's offer to support local school-board efforts to modify busing plans "[that are] not working."
Both Mr. Flemming and Mr. Taylor said they were pleased that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is autonomous and has an advisory role, issued a statement last month repudiating the Administration's position and reaffirming its own advocacy of busing as a means of achieving equal educational opportunity.
After dismissing Mr. Flemming as chairman of the federal civil-rights monitoring agency, President Reagan named Clarence M. Pendleton, the president of the San Diego Urban League and an opponent of mandatory busing, as his successor. Another commission member, Steven Horn, was replaced by Mary Louise Smith, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The remaining four members of the U.S. commission are "holdover" appointees from the Carter and Ford Administrations. President Reagan has nominated three people to positions on the federal rights-monitoring agency, but their appointments have been held up in the Senate.
While those appointments have been delayed, the federal commission has on numerous occasions issued statements in direct contradiction to Reagan Administration civil-rights policies.
Mr. Flemming refused to speculate at the press conference on how commission policy might change if the Reagan appointees are approved. "The proof, they say, is in the pudding," he responded.
Copies of the Citizen's Commission on Civil Rights' report, "There Is No Liberty ... A Report On Congressional Efforts To Curb the Federal Courts and To Undermine the Brown Decision," may be obtained for $5 from the Center for National Policy Review, 620 Michigan Ave., N.E., Washington, D.C. 20064.