Rights Activists Still Skeptical After Lucas Hearing

By Peter Schmidt — August 02, 1989 3 min read

Washington--Civil-rights advocates found little reassurance in the confirmation hearing of William Lucas, President Bush’s choice to head the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, that the new Administration will move vigorously to make good on its pledge to step up efforts to end discrimination.

Instead, they said, Mr. Lucas’s testimony last month reinforced a more skeptical view: that the Administration is without clear direction in the area of civil-rights enforcement.

As he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the black former sheriff and county executive of Wayne County, Mich., frequently stumbled over questions of basic civil-rights law and admitted at one point, “I am new to the law.”

The nominee denied seeing an overall retrenchment in civil-rights enforcement under the Reagan Administration, and said he doubted that recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions narrowly interpreting key civil-rights statutes would have “a significant impact” on the rights of women and minorities.

William L. Taylor, a former staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, expressed concern over Mr. Lucas’s knowledge of “some of the ABC’s of school desegregation.”

Representative John Conyers Jr., a black Michigan Democrat who introduced and endorsed Mr. Lucas at the start of the hearings, took the unusual step of formally withdrawing his support later because, he said, he was “frankly astounded” by the nominee’s views on the Supreme Court rulings. Those decisions have, in Mr. Conyers words, caused “crisis in the civil-rights movement.”

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware and chairman of the committee, questioned whether the designated assistant attorney general for civil rights “will fight for civil rights” or “get rolled” by others in the Administration.

Among the organizations opposing Mr. Lucas were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

E.D. Post Still Vacant

The selection of Mr. Lucas, whose confirmation remained in doubt last week, was seen as the first real indication of how President Bush is proceeding in his pledge to “work to knock down the barriers left by past discrimination, and to build a more tolerant society.”

The office of assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department remained vacant as of last week, and both government officials and civil-rights advocates said they would not know what direction enforcement activities will take until the key players are in place.

“I see the Administration making speeches about how they are going to enforce the civil-rights laws, but I don’t know what that means until I see specifics,” Phyllis McClure, director of policy and information for the n.a.a.c.p. Legal Defense Fund, said before the confirmation hearing.

“There’s a leadership vacuum,” Ms. McClure said. “The Administration has no overall policy. You have one agency going one way and an4other agency going the other way.”

‘Ducks in a Row’

Ms. McClure was among the contingent of civil-rights advocates and federal officials who gathered here last month for a National School Boards Association conference on civil-rights enforcement in the 1990’s.

Most of the participants--who included officials from the Justice Department, the Education Department’s office for civil rights, and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission--agreed that the uncertainty over the new Administration’s intentions, coupled with this year’s Supreme Court rulings, has made careful advocacy on both sides of each civil-rights issue a necessity.

“The message [the Court is] sending, very clearly, is ‘Have your ducks in a row. Don’t do anything without justification,”’ said Stephen L. Spitz, a staff attorney of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 1989 edition of Education Week as Rights Activists Still Skeptical After Lucas Hearing