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Attorney General Janet Reno Predicts Acting Civil Rights Chief Bill Lam Lee Will Not Shy Away

December 16, 1997

Attorney General Janet Reno Predicts Acting Civil Rights Chief Bill Lam Lee Will Not Shy Away From Civil rights IssuesBy SONYA ROSS

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Bill Lann Lee can expect to be watched carefully by both his supporters and his critics as he begins enforcing U.S. anti-discrimination laws at the Justice Department.

Lee’s critics fear that the 48-year-old Los Angeles attorney, a supporter of affirmative action, will use his job to advance racial quotas in affirmative action programs. On the other side, affirmation action supporters say they want Lee to get right to down to business.

``There is no question that Mr. Lee will be among the most congressionally scrutinized bureaucrats in history,″ Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Monday after President Clinton _ bypassing Congress _ appointed Lee acting assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Republicans would ensure that Lee’s office adheres to statutes and federal court rulings ``regarding racial quotas, preferences and timetables.″

Attorney General Janet Reno said today that she expected Lee not to back away from civil rights issues because of the nature of his appointment. ``He has said repeatedly he is giong to enforce the law. as the courts have construed it, and his record in that regard is clear,″ Reno said this morning.

``The president feels very strong that Bill is so perfectly qualified for this job. He’s had extensive experience in the enforcement of our civil rights laws,″ Reno said on ABC’s ``Good Morning America. ``He is known by all who have worked with him as a conciliator who works out matters to the benefit of all concerned.″

Supporters said they were looking for Lee to jump on the remaining work in civil rights enforcement, particularly in housing and employment.

``Pressing work awaits Mr. Lee,″ said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a liaison office for two Jewish groups. ``We stand ready to work with him.″

For his part, Lee said, ``With God’s help, I pledge to enforce, without fear or favor, our nation’s civil rights laws.″

The son of Chinese immigrants, Lee said his appointment ``redeems my parents’ hopes and faith that the American dream can come true for all Americans.″

He was sworn in late Monday afternoon at a small, private ceremony in Attorney General Janet Reno’s conference room, Justice spokesman Bert Brandenburg said. Lee’s wife, Carolyn, held the Bible.

Clinton defied Republican threats of reprisal by naming Lee in the dual roles of acting civil rights chief and counselor to Reno. The maneuver ended a two-month standoff with Congress and was less confrontational than invoking constitutional power for a recess appointment while Congress was out of session, which Clinton had threatened to do.

Clinton said Lee would have ``full authority and support″ to carry out his duties. The president said he would resubmit Lee’s nomination to the Senate early next year in hopes of winning confirmation, which Lee failed to get this year when his nomination languished in Hatch’s committee.

Hatch, who has led the opposition to Lee, said a re-nomination would be ignored.

Should the Senate reject his renewed nomination, Lee would lose his ``acting″ designation but remain on the job at Reno’s discretion. If the Senate declined to act at all, Lee could maintain his acting capacity through the remainder of Clinton’s term.

A coalition of Asian-American groups promised to maintain the fight for Lee’s nomination. ``Bill Lee deserves this new position, and he will prove it in the coming months,″ said Matt Finucane, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.

Lee’s nomination touched off a political fracas between the White House and congressional Republicans over affirmative action. GOP lawmakers argued that Lee’s history with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund indicated he would enforce racial quotas, which are banned by federal law.

The president said Lee’s views ``are my views on affirmative action _ no quotas, no discrimination, no position or benefit for an unqualified person. But mend, don’t end, affirmative action.″

He brushed off Republican threats to retaliate for Lee’s appointment by slowing down judicial nominations and holding up funds for the Justice Department.

``I can’t be worried about retaliation,″ the president said. ``I have to do what I think is right.″

Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, a member of the GOP leadership, said, ``No group of senators is sitting here at this moment calculating revenge. That is not how the Senate works.″

Lee will be the point man for the administration on enforcement of civil rights laws and on civil rights policy. He is charged with enforcing the wide array of civil rights laws protecting people against discrimination in employment and housing, among other things, and the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 to ensure the protection of minority voting rights.

More recently, the division has been stepping up actions taken to enforce the Americans With Disabilities Act, and in some instances has moved against the motion picture industry to make theaters more accessible to the handicapped.

Lee will work with the attorney general and the White House to formulate a wide array of policies and strategies on civil rights. In Democratic administrations, civil rights chiefs have tended to be more activist than in Republican administrations.

During the Reagan years, civil rights groups and their allies in Congress often complained that then-Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds was taking too much of a hands-off stance on civil rights enforcement.

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