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Minorities Oppose Lucas as Lacking in Experience

Times Staff Writer

The fight over the nomination of William Lucas to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division sounds like a debate over affirmative action--but with the roles reversed.

The Bush Administration and conservative Republican senators, usually foes of using race as a factor in employment decisions, say the fact that Lucas is black makes him a particularly good choice for the post.

“The minorities ought to be thankful and grateful and appreciative that here, you’ve got one of your own members appointed,” Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) said in leading the defense of the nomination last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In selecting Lucas to be the government’s top civil rights lawyer, Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh conceded that “there are probably better lawyers than Bill Lucas” but said Lucas’ life stands as a “success story” of a black American.

Qualifications Questioned

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Meanwhile, Washington’s leading civil rights activists, who usually support race-based affirmative action, say that qualifications and legal experience, not race, are what count in selecting someone for this post.

After seven recent civil rights setbacks in the Supreme Court, they say, it is more important than ever that the Justice Department have an experienced, aggressive advocate of civil rights. Instead, they contend, President Bush and Thornburgh have selected a novice--who happens to be black.

The clash illustrates the tough challenge the new civil rights battleground poses for the Administration. Eager to promote opportunity for minorities in its ranks--a top priority of the Republican Party--the White House finds itself hard-pressed to recruit highly qualified minority job candidates who both endorse its ideology and are acceptable to the civil rights establishment.

With the Lucas nomination, the uneasy peace that prevailed between the Administration and key civil rights advocates has been shattered.

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Today, the closely divided Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on Lucas, a former sheriff, county executive and unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor of Michigan. If seven of the committee’s eight Democrats vote “no” the nomination may be dead.

Lucas did get a boost Wednesday when Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a wavering Republican, announced he would support the nomination.

Since January, Bush and Thornburgh had sought to steer a comfortable middle course on civil rights. Where former President Ronald Reagan and his civil rights division chief, William Bradford Reynolds, were perceived as hostile to civil rights, Bush and Thornburgh tried to maintain a “cordial relationship” with civil rights leaders, as Justice Department spokesman David Runkel put it last week.

But civil rights advocates say the record of the Bush Administration has not matched its public pronouncements. They note that Thornburgh found top-notch lawyers to head the divisions on antitrust, tax and environmental policy, but say that was not the case with civil rights.

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They also took note of Bush’s reaction to the Supreme Court rulings. Where Bush proposed a constitutional amendment to overturn the protection of flag-burning as a form of political protest, the President and the attorney general had little to say about the civil rights decisions, other than that they would monitor their impact.

Lucas did little to ease doubts about his legal acumen as he stumbled through a Judiciary Committee hearing last week. Asked to explain the difference between de jure and de facto segregation, Lucas appeared to draw a blank.

A crucial distinction in school desegregation cases, de jure segregation is that established by law or official policy, while de facto segregation in schools may result from other causes such as housing patterns among blacks and whites. De jure segregation is illegal; de facto segregation is not.

“I am new to the law,” explained Lucas, a 1962 graduate of Fordham University Law School who has spent his career in law enforcement and government.

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An NAACP lawyer commented that for a civil rights lawyer not to know this distinction is akin to a doctor being unable to distinguish between an aorta and a vein.

This was not Lucas’ only problem before the committee. He commented that Congress was able to overturn the “Bob Jones decision” to grant tax exemptions to racially segregated colleges. In fact, there was nothing to correct, since the Supreme Court in an 8-to-1 vote rejected a Reagan Administration move to give out those tax exemptions.

In announcing that he would support Lucas, Specter said it was unfair to give undue weight to legal knowledge.

Specter said Lucas’ “tough experience as a member of a minority” is a more important qualification for the job of safeguarding minority rights than his “ability to articulate the refined nuances of Supreme Court decisions.”

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Of further concern to skeptics at the hearings were episodes in Lucas’ past involving gambling junkets to Las Vegas, hidden jewelry found during a customs search and misstatements on his bar application.

For example, during a 1977 FBI investigation, Lucas, then the sheriff of Wayne County, Mich., admitted to having taken “three to five” trips to Las Vegas paid for by a Detroit man with ties to organized crime. Last week, Lucas told the senators he had taken only one such trip. Asked to explain why he gave the FBI a different story, he replied: “It was very casual. I felt no compunction to be precise.”

Born in Harlem and orphaned at an early age, Lucas got his start as a New York City policeman. He later became an FBI agent, a sheriff and Wayne County, Mich., executive. In 1985, he became a rising star of the Republican Party when he switched his allegiance from the Democrats.

His lengthy career in law enforcement and politics did not include actual legal work, his critics noted. Lucas has not tried a case, handled an appeal or written a legal brief.

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Lucas “does not meet any reasonable standard for confirmation” to the government’s top legal post for civil rights enforcement, Ralph G. Neas, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, told the committee. The NAACP, its Legal Defense Fund and People for the American Way have also come out against the nomination.


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