Clinton names Lee acting civil rights chief Method of appointment avoids vote in Senate over liberal nominee

December 16, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton took advantage of Congress' absence to name NAACP lawyer Bill Lann Lee to the Justice Department's top civil rights post yesterday, despite the objections of Republicans who complain he is too staunchly supportive of affirmative action.

"Our present civil rights laws ensure that all Americans have equal opportunities to work, to learn, to live, to raise their children in communities where they can thrive and grow," the president said. "I can think of no one whose life story and impeccable credentials make him more suited to enforcing these laws than Bill Lann Lee."

At an Oval Office ceremony with Clinton, Lee never mentioned the fight surrounding his nomination, referring to it only obliquely when he turned to Attorney General Janet Reno and thanked her for her "steadfast confidence" in him.

"With God's help, I pledge to enforce, without fear or favor, our nation's civil rights laws on behalf of all of the American people," Lee said.

Lee, 48, becomes the highest ranking Asian-American in the administration. The son of Chinese immigrants, he practiced law in Los Angeles, where he served as Western regional director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund.

Senators of both parties had warned Clinton he would invite retaliation against other nominees if he circumvented the Senate's confirmation process by making a "recess appointment" of Lee while Congress was out of session.

But Clinton attempted to finesse the problem by designating Lee as acting assistant attorney general for civil rights instead, and by saying he intends to submit Lee's name for Senate approval at a later date.

"He has the full authority of the office," Clinton said. "And you have seen here he has the full confidence of the attorney general and the president. That's all he needs."

Legal scholars conceded that Lee will have virtually all the legal authority as acting head of the Civil Rights Division that he would have had in a recess appointment. "It's a distinction without a difference," said John Kramer of the conservative Institute for Justice.

"Lee will have the job, but without the moral authority that comes with Senate confirmation," added Clint Bolick, the group's litigation director.

But White House officials countered that acting appointees are commonplace in Republican and well as Democratic administrations. They pointed out that liberal North Carolina law professor Walter Dellinger served as acting solicitor general in // the Clinton Justice Department for over a year because it was thought he wouldn't survive a confirmation hearing.

Nevertheless, yesterday's wrinkle of conferring acting status on someone already nominated for office appears to have three potential advantages for Clinton:

The president may have successfully tiptoed around the acute sensibilities of the Senate -- and still gotten his man.

"That's not quite the finger in the eye that a 'recess appointment' would be," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, a leading GOP opponent, said Sunday when asked about such a possibility.

Under a formal recess appointment, Lee would have had to leave office when Congress adjourned in 1998. Theoretically, unless Clinton resubmits his nomination and he is rejected by the Senate, Lee can now serve until Clinton's term ends in three years.

If Lee turns out to be the unifying figure the president predicts, opposition may well melt away and the Senate will confirm him.

The reaction to Clinton's move broke along predictable lines. Civil rights groups and liberals in Congress praised it, while conservatives or those opposed to affirmative action, remained unsatisfied.

"The president's only choices today were to take a risk or to watch an excellent nominee be tossed aside for no reason," said Carole Shields, president of the liberal People for the American Way. "In the civil rights community, we have waited and waited for the Judiciary Committee to wake up, and we are tired of waiting."

Added Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat: "This is terrific news, for Bill Lann Lee, for the Justice Department and for everyone in our country."

Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, one of the Republicans who questioned Lee closely on affirmative action during his confirmation hearings, didn't see it that way.

"Mr. Lee persists in the belief that Americans should be judged by the color of their skin in determining academic admissions, public contracts and employment," Ashcroft said. "For these reasons, Mr. Lee is unqualified for the position."

Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson predicted that Clinton's decision would ensure that affirmative action will be a big issue during the 1998 congressional elections.

"While the designation of Lee as an acting attorney general may not be a 'finger in the eye' of the Senate," Nicholson said, "it was at least an elbow in the ribs -- and it will have significant political repercussions."

In the meantime, Lee will attract more attention than most acting heads of government offices. "I will accord him the same respect and deference I have shown other interim department officials," Hatch said. "Still, there is no question that Mr. Lee will be among the most congressionally scrutinized bureaucrats in history."

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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