Affirmative action foes mobilizing in 50 states Persuasion, publicity, lawsuits planned to prod state attorneys general

March 12, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A newly formed group of foes of affirmative action began putting pressure yesterday on all 50 state attorneys general to wipe out "the vast majority" of race preferences in state and local government.

Calling itself the "Project for All Deliberate Speed," borrowing the phrase the Supreme Court used to order prompt obedience to its school desegregation decision, the group said state officials must act deliberately now to carry out recent Supreme Court court rulings sharply limiting race-based affirmative action.

Just as there was "massive resistance" to desegregation, one of the project leaders, former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, said, there is "new massive resistance" to court decisions that "render all but the most exceptional and remedial use of racial preferences unconstitutional."

Although many affirmative action programs now in existence provide preferences not only for racial minorities but also for women, the new group only attacked racial preferences yesterday. If those programs were undone, though, it very likely would mean the demise of many sex-based preferences, too.

Another project leader, Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice, a conservative activist group, said at a news conference here that a close review by state attorneys general of race-based programs would lead to recommendations to repeal "the vast majority of racial classifications."

Stephen R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, sharply criticized the new project.

"I do not think the attorneys general need to be lectured on their obligation to enforce the law," Shapiro said. But he did note that many state and local governments did re-examine their affirmative action programs after a 1989 Supreme Court ruling striking down a local plan in Richmond, Va.

Shapiro also challenged the group's legal arguments, saying they offered "a simplified version" of what the law now is.

The project, in its letter to all of the top state legal officers, said it was calling for voluntary action to review all race-based classifications.

But its leaders stressed that it would monitor closely what the attorneys general do, and use a combination of finger-pointing publicity and new lawsuits if attorneys general do not go along.

Bolick warned that states "can almost never win" under recent Supreme Court decisions if they get sued over the use of race in government programs.

He also said that the project plans "grass roots" efforts to pass ballot measures, like California's Proposition 209, to attack the remaining preferences.

One state attorney general, Gale Norton of Colorado, told reporters that state legal officers are in the habit of working together on common problems, and she expressed confidence that they would do so in eliminating race-based programs that do not satisfy current law.

In Maryland, state Deputy Attorney General Donna Hill Staton said she was unaware of the new project's efforts to promote statewide review of affirmative action, but noted that Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has a process of advising state agencies about new court rulings that affect them.

"If a decision affects existing law, or provides an interpretation not previously provided, we will bring it to the attention of persons and agencies who need to be advised," Staton said. That is "routine," she said.

The office, she said, has not undertaken any special program of reviewing all state affirmative action programs.

Staton did note, though, that the attorney general's office takes the view that "affirmative action had not been outlawed," and that it continues to be permitted "in situations where there are lingering effects of past discrimination."

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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