Pumping Up Civil Rights : Patrick is a strong nominee for federal post

Washington needs a tough, principled and skillful advocate for civil rights at the Justice Department. Race remains a decidedly tortuous subject for Americans to discuss honestly. Passions and fears often discourage a thoughtful political discourse on how to protect the rights of minorities without usurping the rights of the majority.

President Clinton has nominated Deval L. Patrick, a prominent Boston attorney, to become the assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division. Depending on a President’s philosophy, that division aggressively or minimally enforces laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, public education, housing, public accommodations and funding of federal programs.

Patrick, Clinton’s third choice for this important post, is expected to clear the political hurdles to confirmation. He has no paper trail like the President’s first choice, Lani Guinier, the brilliant but controversial law professor whom Clinton abandoned after she was pilloried because of some of the statements in her prolific legal writings on voting rights. Patrick was Guinier’s co-counsel on discrimination cases when both worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, but even her most rabid detractors have yet to make stick any suggestion that Patrick is another Guinier.

Unlike Clinton’s second choice, Washington attorney John Payton, Patrick is knowledgeable on voting rights law, perhaps the most immediate challenge facing whoever gets the job. He is also known for his intellectual toughness, negotiating skills and leadership capabilities. In the job Patrick would face the formidable task of reviving an agency that sleep-walked during years of White House failure to vigorously enforce federal civil rights laws.


Congress should approve Patrick and in its nomination hearings explore why this nation still needs strong federal enforcement nearly 30 years after passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Minorities have made major advances in terms of where they live and work, but employment and housing discrimination remains. Ballots are no longer denied through discriminatory tools like poll taxes and literacy tests, but intimidation and other tactics sometimes still are used to suppress the black and Latino vote. Redistricting too is misused to dilute the minority vote. And even when minority candidates prevail, local governing bodies sometimes change the rules to weaken their newfound power.

These challenges require constant federal vigilance, and sometimes intervention. It is a never-ending fight. Patrick should prove a capable warrior in the cause.