Lawyer in set-aside case may get nomination

September 08, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- John Payton, a lawyer who argued one of the most significant civil rights cases of the last decade before the Supreme Court, has emerged as a leading candidate to head the civil rights division in the Justice Department, according to Clinton administration officials.

Mr. Payton, who is currently the corporation counsel for the District of Columbia, represented the city of Richmond in its unsuccessful effort to defend a program that set aside 30 percent of its business for minority contractors. A divided Supreme Court struck down the program in 1989, ruling that it violated the Constitution's equal-protection guarantee by discriminating against white contractors.

Officials said yesterday Mr. Payton, earlier considered briefly for appointment as attorney general, had now been interviewed extensively about the civil rights post by senior administration officials.

Filling that post has proved a difficult, even painful, experience for the administration.

President Clinton last June withdrew the nomination of his first choice for the job, Lani Guinier, saying he could not defend the views she had advanced about race in her scholarly writings.

Ms. Guinier, 43, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, had known Mr. Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton for more than 20 years, from the days when they attended Yale Law School together.

She became the target of intense criticism for having suggested in her articles that proportional representation by race might be necessary in some cases to give blacks a proper amount of political influence.

Mr. Payton, who is 46 and a graduate of Harvard Law School, has been highly recommended by civil rights leaders who were angered by Mr. Clinton's abandonment of the Guinier nomination.

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