Vote on Reynolds Set for Today : White House Stakes High in Choice for Justice Dept.

Times Staff Writer

For a man described by a leading civil rights lobbyist as “the point person for the radical right on civil rights issues,” Assistant Atty. Gen. William Bradford Reynolds came to his post apparently free of any telltale ideological bent.

Indeed, so unknown were Reynolds’ views that when, as a private attorney, he was persuaded four years ago to take the nation’s premier civil rights enforcement job, conservative senators voiced fears about his selection.

“They were afraid he would turn out to be another Stan Pottinger,” said one official, recalling how conservatives contended that Assistant Atty. Gen. J. Stanley Pottinger charted a too liberal course when he headed the Justice Department’s civil rights division during the Gerald R. Ford Administration.

But halfway through President Reagan’s first term, Reynolds had become the darling of archconservatives, both critics and supporters acknowledge. And now, he stands at the center of a confirmation fight that threatens to erode Reagan’s power on Capitol Hill and thwart the plans of Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III to shift the Justice Department markedly to the political right.


The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote today on Reynolds’ nomination as associate attorney general, the department’s No. 3 post. But the issue is so much in doubt, despite a 10-8 Republican majority on the panel, that at best it appears that the committee will report the nomination to the full Senate without a recommendation.

Should that happen, an even tougher battle on the Senate floor would be guaranteed. The President, who has taken a personal role in the controversy by devoting one of his recent Saturday radio addresses to defending Reynolds, would suffer a deep political embarrassment if the Republican-controlled Senate rejected his nominee. And Reynolds’ promotion is the key to a series of personnel changes designed by Meese to put his own conservative stamp on the department.

Blamed for Rights Retreats

To his critics, such as Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Reynolds has been the “architect of most, if not all, of the Administration’s retreats on civil rights.” To his supporters, he has helped pull the federal government away from so-called “reverse discrimination” efforts to correct civil rights abuses.


With the backing of the White House, he has forcefully championed a conservative line on enforcement of civil rights laws. He led efforts against court-ordered busing to achieve school desegregation and against racial quotas to counter job discrimination.

Reynolds’ foes on the Judiciary Committee have focused their criticism on what they regard as his misleading testimony over his decision not to provide federal help to voting rights plantiffs in Louisiana. Reynolds has denied purposefully misleading the committee.

In many ways, Reynolds, 43, whose slim frame reflects his penchant for running five miles a day, seems an unlikely character to be at the center of such a public dispute.

He is private about his personal life--so much so that it occasionally surprises associates that he holds a multimillion-dollar investment portfolio, acquired as a scion of the DuPont family.


Although Reynolds drives a Mercedes--which he is quick to point out is a 1972 model--and lives in the wealthy Maryland suburb of Potomac, he gives little other sign of his financial well-being, particularly in his modest choice of clothes and plain manner of speech.

Both Reynolds’ supporters and detractors agree that he is a highly intelligent, skillful litigator. He honed his skills by serving as an assistant solicitor general for three years during the Richard M. Nixon Administration under Solicitor General Erwin Griswold, whose credentials as a proponent of vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws were unquestioned.

Some who have worked under, alongside and above Reynolds in the Administration contend his intensity and zeal lead him to take “extreme positions” that courts are not as likely to adopt as they would a series of step-by-step attempts to change the law.

Moreover, these critics contend, Reynolds and some of his aides have appealed to the White House to overturn some internal department decisions--a version of events that he said Wednesday “had never, never happened.”


Denies Attack on Ex-Official

In a particularly sharp clash, the critics maintain that Reynolds’ camp accused former Solicitor General Rex E. Lee of disloyalty to the Administration when he insisted in a civil rights case on a less-sweeping appeal to the Supreme Court than they advocated. Again, Reynolds denies the charge.

His backers contend that such allegations are “sour grapes"--the kind of attack that is to be expected on an individual who must implement controversial Administration policies.

“You’ve got to remember that he has headed a division that’s not a bunch of neutral lawyers, as you’ll find in the tax, civil or lands divisions,” one veteran department official said. “It’s an office of advocacy, and bringing about change in policy . . . in such a place is quite an accomplishment.”