A Good Choice for Civil Rights

February 04, 1994

President Clinton's choice to head the long-leaderless Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice seems an excellent one, judged by his professional and personal history. Deval Patrick rose from very humble surroundings to over-achiever status at Harvard Law School and then, after litigating cases for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, made partner at an establishment Boston law firm which has given Massachusetts two recent governors, one a liberal Democrat and the other a conservative Republican.

Mr. Patrick's political views on civil rights issues are significantly to the left of those of many conservatives and many Republicans, but that is no ground for their opposing him. This is the way the system works. The American people chose a president who is neither Republican nor conservative, and his views -- plus the views of those who voted for him -- are what the Department of Justice is supposed to turn into policy.

This newspaper called President Clinton's first nominee for this post, Penn law professor Lani Guinier, an "unwise" choice, on the basis of legal and political views we found far outside the mainstream. When the president got around to reading her law review articles, he came to the same conclusion. He indicates he expects no surprises this time, and neither do we.

Criticism of Mr. Patrick to date focuses on his being one of the lawyers who argued in a 1987 case that capital punishment is unconstitutional when extreme racial disparities regarding victims and/or defendants exist. That is hardly radical thinking. Four justices of the Supreme Court agreed with it. Frankly we would like to see legislation that would require a state in which such disparities exist to prove in individual cases that unconstitutional racism was not involved.

Mr. Patrick's critics also say he favors race-based gerrymandering. We ourselves have some doubts about that practice, but we don't think it's unconstitutional, and, again, neither did four justices in a case last year. This is not an out-of-the-mainstream idea.

The civil rights division has some of the finest career lawyers in the federal government, but it has not had a leader who is experienced in the field and committed to active advocacy of a pro-civil rights agenda in 13 years. It needs one, and Mr. Patrick looks to be just that.

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