Brian W. Jones, the subject of Democratic criticism of his views on civil rights and affirmative action, promised last week that, if confirmed as the Department of Education’s general counsel, he will protect the rights of the disadvantaged in education.
At Mr. Jones’ confirmation hearing Sept. 6 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, Democrats questioned his writings for challenging aspects of laws he would be charged with upholding as the chief education attorney.
Republicans praised his government experience and his commitment to education.
During the one-hour hearing, Mr. Jones said that he shares many of the concerns and goals of the panel’s members for revamping education, but that he simply has different ideas for achieving those objectives. Regardless, he said, those views would not get in the way of his duties.
“I am certainly respectful of the law, I am a lawyer first and foremost, and I will vigorously enforce the law,” Mr. Jones said. Flanked by his parents, grandfather, in-laws, wife, and 17-month-old daughter, he told stories of growing up in a home where education was revered and where he and his brother were expected to achieve.
Mr. Jones, who was selected by President Bush in April, would serve as chief adviser to Secretary of Education Rod Paige on all legal matters related to the agency. The general counsel oversees a staff of nearly 100 lawyers.
A San Francisco-based lawyer who has represented a range of corporate clients, Mr. Jones, 33, has experience working with higher education institutions on federal regulations. He also served as the president from 1995 to 1997 of the Center for New Black Leadership, a Washington-based group that advocates school choice, and continues to serve on its board. Gerald A. Reynolds, the president’s choice to head the Education Department’s civil rights office, has also been a leader of that group.
Mr. Jones served as majority counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee for one year, in 1997, and was an aide to then-Gov. Pete Wilson of California, a Republican, in 1998.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Judiciary chairman when Mr. Jones served as counsel, told the committee that Mr. Jones is “one of the most fair-minded, even-handed, reasonable individuals I’ve ever worked with.”
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the HELP Committee, said he was concerned with several of Mr. Jones’ articles that criticized affirmative action.
“The views expressed in these writings raise concerns about his commitment to vigorously enforce existing civil rights laws, as well as his willingness to support policies that open the doors of educational opportunity wider,” Sen. Kennedy said.
For instance, Mr. Jones recently wrote an article for the newsletter of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a Washington-based group of conservative and libertarian lawyers, in which he took aim at civil rights groups that had criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for employing only a minuscule percentage of minority clerks in its history.
The Supreme Court, he wrote, only has a limited pool of qualified candidates and should not be forced to choose by race. “These liberal critics have in fact undermined among young minority lawyers the most essential diversity of all—intellectual diversity,” he wrote in the May 10 article.
The committee could vote on Mr. Jones’ nomination as early as this week. Sen. Kennedy and other Democrats did not say last week how they would vote. The committee has 10 Democrats, 10 Republicans and Independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who famously aligned himself with Democrats when he bolted the GOP earlier this year.
Mr. Jones’ views on minority and affirmative action issues could have a profound effect on the department’s role in pursuing lawsuits or settlements, suggested Judith A. Winston, who held the job during much of the Clinton administration.
She said the general counsel works closely to advise and brief the secretary and other top officials on legal matters. While the person does not usually have a direct hand in crafting policy, he or she is the chief enforcer of those policies. The job also entails communicating the department’s positions on education-related issues, often to the U.S. solicitor general in cases before the Supreme Court.
In recent years, Ms. Winston said, her office dealt with, among other hot topics, aid to religious schools, affirmative action, civil rights, First Amendment questions, and labor-union issues.
“Any type of lawsuit you can imagine, we had at the department,” said Ms. Winston, who is now a research professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of Washington groups, opposed the nomination in a Sept. 6 letter to the Senate, contending that Mr. Jones’ views threaten “a radical change in the department’s approach to issues of discrimination in every area— race, ethnicity, sex, disability, and age.”