After a tense and sometimes emotional debate over affirmative action, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday postponed voting on President Clinton’s nominee for the Justice Department’s top civil rights position.
The committee had been expected to reject the nomination of Asian American attorney Bill Lann Lee to be the nation’s top civil rights enforcer because of his support for affirmative action. But the panel postponed action for a week at the request of Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the panel’s top Democrat.
The committee is scheduled to vote on Lee’s nomination next Thursday. Lee’s supporters - from Asian American groups to the NAACP - said they would use the extra time to lobby key senators.
Later in the committee’s session, Leahy was on the verge of tears as he described his father’s experience with discrimination years ago. As a teenager, Leahy’s father had to support his family after his father, a Vermont stonecutter, died.
“At that time, he was faced with signs which said, ‘No Irish need apply’ or ‘No Catholic need apply,”’ Leahy said, pausing occasionally. “At that time, there was not a civil rights law. There was not a Bill Lann Lee or anybody else willing to enforce a civil rights law. Had there been, my father’s life would have been a lot different. I do not want to see us backtrack on our civil rights laws.”
Commenting on opposition to Lee, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended Thursday’s session, said, “This does not pass the smell test of Asian bashing.”
Said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for a Feminist Majority: “The Republican arty is risking building the gender gap into a gender canyon…. This is another attempt to drive women and minorities back.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, reiterated his opposition to Lee, who has spent his career as a civil rights litigator and most recently was the western regional director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, an organization opposed by many conservatives for its backing of affirmative action.
Hatch also opposes Lee because of his opposition to Proposition 209, the California initiative that bars using racial or gender criteria in state hiring, contracting or college admission.
“… His record reflects that he is also an activist lawyer who has demonstrated a distorted view of the Constitution and the nation’s civil rights laws,” Hatch said. “… I cannot support a nominee whose record, combined with his testimony, demonstrate a decided reluctance to enforce the law as intended.”
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