House Hearing Latest Stage for Sparring Over Affirmative Action

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The affirmative action debate intensified last week as House Republicans sparred with the Clinton administration over Californias voter-approved ban on racial preferences.

Meanwhile, a top administration civil rights official expressed alarm over declining minority applications at universities in California and Texas.

The decline in such applications is "a disturbing harbinger" of what would happen across the country if affirmative action programs were eliminated, Isabelle Katz Pinzler, the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, told the House Judiciary Committee's Constitution subcommittee last week.

She cited reports that minority applications to the University of Texas for the 1997-98 academic year have fallen 20 percent from applications for this year, while the University of California, Los Angeles, law school has admitted 80 percent fewer black students and 32 percent fewer Hispanic students this year than last year. Texas falls within the jurisdiction of a federal appeals court that has sharply curtailed the use of race and ethnicity as legitimate factors in admissions. ("Supreme Court Refuses To Weigh Race-Based College Admissions," July 10, 1996.) In California, meanwhile, state institutions are beginning to feel the effects of a decision by the state board of regents to end affirmative action in admissions.

As for the California ballot measure known as Proposition 209, the Department of Justice has filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting groups asking the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to reconsider a circuit panel's decision in April upholding the measure. Proposition 209 bars the state and local governments from using racial or gender preferences in education, employment, and contracting. ("Calif. Measure Barring Racial Preferences Reinstated," April 16, 1997.)

Ms. Pinzler told the Constitution subcommittee on May 20 that the measure would make it more difficult for the federal government to enforce civil rights in California because it could limit the remedies available. She testified during a subcommittee oversight hearing on the Justice Department's civil rights division.

But Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., the chairman of the subcommittee, criticized the administration's position.

"It is unfortunate that our own nation's civil rights division has opted to defend the indefensible, a system that denies our people the equal protection of the law to which they are entitled," said Rep. Canady, who plans this year to reintroduce a bill that would end racial and gender preferences in federal programs.

Heating Up

While the Clinton administration's position on affirmative action has been attacked by conservative Republicans for at least two years, the debate is likely to heat up.

President Clinton is reportedly considering two finalists to replace Deval L. Patrick, who stepped down earlier this year as the chief of the Justice Department's civil rights division. The division oversees school desegregation cases in some 500 districts, as well as other matters.

The two finalists are said to be Judith A. Winston, the general counsel of the Department of Education, and Bill Lann Lee, the Los Angeles director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Both have been attacked by conservatives as too willing to defend affirmative action.

Also much anticipated is the administration's response to the U.S. Supreme Court's request for its views on a pending case in which a white teacher has sued a New Jersey school district for laying her off instead of an equally qualified black teacher in order to maintain racial diversity in a high school's business education department.

The high court has not yet decided whether to hear the case, Board of Education of the Township of Piscataway v. Taxman (Case No. 96-679).

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