Civil-Rights Advocates, Federal Official Square Off at House Committee Session
Washington--Representatives of the nation's largest civil-rights advocacy groups have asked a House Judiciary subcommittee for a special investigation to determine whether officials of the Reagan Administration have failed to carry out their responsibilities under the Constitution.
In addition, they asked the members of the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights to drastically reduce the budget of the Justice Department's civil-rights division and to increase those of other federal agencies responsible for the enforcement of civil-rights laws.
William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said he was "shocked" by those suggestions and added that it was "patently absurd" to denigrate the Administration's "strong, vibrant, positive, and highly commendable civil-rights enforcement record."
Representative Don Edwards, Democrat of California and chairman of the panel, set the tone for the hearings by stating at the outset that he was "deeply troubled by the dramatic shift in federal civil-rights enforcement" under the Administration.
William Taylor, a civil-rights lawyer speaking on behalf of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, went one step further, calling Mr. Reynolds "an unbending ideologue" who has "put his policy of defiance of law into action."
He suggested that the subcommittee undertake a "special inquiry" into the conduct of the department to determine "whether and in what respects officials in the Justice Department have failed to carry out their duties under the Constitution and the laws" of the country.
"If the chief law-enforcement agency of the United States may with impunity trammel the rights of one group of citizens, then the rights of all of us are in jeopardy," Mr. Taylor said.
'Department of Injustice'
"Our view is that the Department of Justice has become the department of injustice as it relates to the victims of racial discrimination,'' added Thomas I. Atkins, general counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The department, he added, "is engaged in a conspiracy against the victims of racial discrimination."
"To give them more money to engage in more of the same would implicate this committee and this Congress in that conspiracy," he said.
Theodore M. Shaw, assistant counsel to the Legal Defense Fund Inc., told the subcommittee that he resigned from his position in the department last year "because it had become apparent to me that the department was no longer committed to effective enforcement of this nation's civil-rights laws."
The legal-defense fund was formerly known as the naacp Legal Defense and Education Fund.
"Legal opinions and recommendations of career civil-rights division attorneys are no longer considered, and morale among the legal corps is low," he said.
Mr. Reynolds, in defending the Administration's policies, said the organizations' allegations and recommendations to the subcommittee "stray far from reasoned advocacy."
"This department has been unfairly accused of doing nothing," Mr. Reynolds said.
In the area of school desegregation, he pointed out, it is unfair to gauge the department's enforcement record by pointing to the number of cases it has taken to court.
"The years are over when this division could come to this subcommittee and laud itself for the number of case it filed," Mr. Reynolds explained. "Most major metropolitan school districts are already under court order. To measure enforcement today on case filings is unfair."
He then pointed out that, to date, the department has filed one new case, has followed through with four cases filed during the end of the Carter Admininistration, has initiated eight new investigations, and has negotiated 15 consent decrees.
"These are all long, complex, resource-draining efforts, yet no credit is given," he said. "While there is much hand-wringing about this change in course from forced busing to quality education, I know there is strong support for this in Congress and in the courts. Let's not throw around baseless and irresponsible charges."