Empty Seat at Justice

December 27, 1993

With the withdrawal of President Clinton's second nominee, John Payton, to head the Justice Department's civil rights division, the administration's efforts to get the troubled agency on track appear to be back to square one. Mr. Clinton withdrew the nomination of his first choice for the post, University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier, after conservatives attacked her views on minority voting rights as "too radical."

Mr. Payton, who presently is corporation counsel for the District of Columbia government, seemed a safe choice until a few weeks ago. But then members of the Congressional Black Caucus raised a red flag over the nominee's lukewarm commitment to increasing minority representation in Congress through creation of black-majority voting districts. Many of the caucus' newest members owe their election to such districts, which were strongly supported by Ms. Guinier.

Next came reports that Mr. Payton had never voted in a District of Columbia election during his 16 years as a city resident. Critics naturally wondered if a man who apparently couldn't be bothered to fulfill this most basic responsibility of citizenship should be entrusted with enforcing the provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

The upshot was the precipitous collapse of the Payton nomination. The White House informed the nominee earlier this month that it could no longer count on the votes to assure confirmation.

The Payton debacle has left administration civil rights policy in limbo nearly a year after the president took office. Nor is the Justice Department post the only highly visible vacancy in Mr. Clinton administration. Throughout the bureaucracy dozens of top slots have gone unfilled because the administration hasn't been able to get its act together.

To his credit, Mr. Clinton largely has made good on his campaign pledge to make appointments that "look like America." For example, a recent article in The New Yorker magazine noted that the president's record in naming blacks, women and minorities to federal judgeships has been much better than that of his predecessors. Still, the job of Justice Department civil rights chief has been a bellwether of administration thinking on matters of race. Mr. Clinton's stumbles in filling the job are an embarrassment. This is an area where strong leadership is needed to reinvigorate a department demoralized by a dozen years of Republican neglect. Mr. Clinton's heart may in the right place, but he has yet to make good on his promises.

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