Justice nominee's liberal past, corporate ties stand in contrast Democrats' zeal for Baird muted by review of her record

January 15, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Almost overnight, the unfamiliar name had bolted to the top of the short list, leap-frogging over better-known names of prominent judges and established legal minds under consideration for the job of attorney general.

The Christmas eve appointment of Zoe (pronounced ZOH-ee) E. Baird, a 40-year-old corporate lawyer and insurance executive, as the nation's top law enforcement officer, was perhaps the biggest surprise of the Clinton Cabinet.

And in a way, it was also the biggest gamble.

Committed to naming a woman to head the 90,000 person, male-dominated Justice Department, Mr. Clinton has thrust onto the hot seat a woman who comes highly recommended by her colleagues and mentors, most notably Secretary of State-designate Warren M. Christopher, but a lawyer the president-elect himself barely knows. Earlier this week, Mr. Clinton conceded that he picked her because "everybody that I called about her who I knew well raved about her."

Friends and colleagues do, in fact, rave. They say Ms. Baird, currently vice president and general counsel at Aetna Life & Casualty, is extraordinarily bright, profoundly poised, serious-minded, self-possessed and, most of all, up to the job.

"Ms. Baird is a real 10-strike," says Benjamin Civiletti of Baltimore, an attorney general during the Carter administration who knows Ms. Baird. "For someone her age, she has a rare combination of skills that are needed for the job."

But among some Democrats, the initial excitement over the appointment of the first woman to head the Justice Department has been muted by a closer examination of Ms. Baird's record.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Ms. Baird and her husband, Paul Gewirtz, a constitutional scholar teaching at Yale Law School, employed as domestic help a Peruvian couple living illegally in the United States and failed to pay their Social Security taxes until they did so retroactively this month.

Baird told transition officials she believed she was legally employing the woman as a baby sitter and her husband as a part-time driver since she was sponsoring the South American woman's application for citizenship. After hiring the couple, she was advised by a lawyer not to pay their Social Security taxes, transition aides told the newspaper.

Ms. Baird, who as attorney general would supervise the Immigrationand Naturalization Service, disclosed the information about the couple to Mr. Clinton before her appointment, transition aides say, but the FBI is examining the issue for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will vote on her confirmation after hearings next week.

She also could face some grilling about her views on civil justice issues, as espoused through her representation of Aetna and, before that firm, General Electric Co., where she was a top lawyer. Ironically, for a daughter of a liberal, Jewish labor union organizer, a child of the '60s remembered by her college friends as an outspoken civil libertarian, Ms. Baird's nomination has been protested by liberal-leaning groups who believe her advocacy of limiting corporate liability is more in line with conservative Republican thinking than with Mr. Clinton's.

Gingerly treatment expected

Despite the areas of controversy surrounding her, Ms. Baird is expected to be treated gingerly by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which hasn't been forgiven for its interrogation of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings.

If she is confirmed, she will face tremendous challenges dealing with the explosion of drugs, white-collar crime and overcrowded prisons as well as thorny civil rights, antitrust and immigration issues that will soon be on her desk.

It is likely she will face an additional burden, partly because she is the first woman to hold the top job at the male-dominated Justice Department, where only seven of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys are female. But also because she enters the department with so little stature.

Hers is an impressive resume, but one lacking in criminal prosecution and with only a brief foray into government service. There is also the feeling among Justice Department employees that she was a last-minute, almost capricious, selection.

"I hope people are mature enough not to resent her because she's a woman," says one former Justice Department official who admitted there's a "macho way of doing things" at Justice. "But given the way she's come into this job, she'll need to prove herself in a way most people wouldn't have to."

A generation on the move

In many ways, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native represents the rush of women who changed the complexion of law schools nearly two decades ago and are just now taking their place as lead players in law firms, corporations and government.

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