President Clinton Thursday named Bill Lann Lee to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division, ignoring warnings by Senate Republicans against a recess appointment of the controversial lawyer who failed to win Senate confirmation for the post.
The recess appointment, made while Congress is on its summer break and Republicans are nominating their 2000 presidential candidate in Philadelphia, allows Mr. Lee to serve through the remainder of Mr. Clinton’s term despite his failure to win Senate confirmation.
Mr. Lee, an Asian-American and former lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was not confirmed because of Republican senators’ concerns he was too dedicated to racial preferences and quotas in defiance of Supreme Court decisions limiting such policies.
He has served as acting head of the civil rights division for 2 and 1/2 years.
The appointment, made without comment while Mr. Clinton was playing golf, comes while the Republican National Convention is seeking to present an image of racial tolerance and inclusiveness timing the White House did not miss.
“The Republican Party’s blocking of Bill Lann Lee stands in sharp contrast to the theatrical performance in Philadelphia, designed to obscure [a record of] no commitment to civil rights enforcement,” said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.
Mr. Clinton named Mr. Lee, a California lawyer, “acting” head of the civil rights division after the Senate refused to confirm him in 1997. The appointment did not require confirmation and allowed Mr. Lee to serve until late this year.
Critics have called the appointment a flagrant violation of the Constitution, which gives the Senate the power to “advise and consent” on major executive appointments.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said Mr. Clinton was playing partisan politics, adding that the timing of the appointment served as further evidence that he was “intent on dividing our people rather than uniting us for the common good.”
It was Mr. Hatch who earlier this year counseled Mr. Clinton not to name Mr. Lee to the Justice Department’s top civil rights job, saying the appointment would violate the Federal Vacancies Reform Act which limits the president’s ability to circumvent the Senate confirmation process.
Mr. Hatch said at the time that during Mr. Lee’s tenure at Justice, the department had advocated the “same policies that initially led to his failure to be confirmed” in 1997.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, said recalcitrance by the Republicans on the Lee nomination had forced Mr. Clinton’s recess appointment.
“The way they have treated Bill Lann Lee has been petty and steeped in partisan vinegar,” Mr. Leahy said. “It has been a direct insult to him and to all who care about civil rights enforcement.”
Mr. Leahy said Republican handling of the Lee case was part of a four-year pattern under which Democratic nominees, “especially women and minorities, have been subjected to anonymous and humiliating delays before they get a vote, if they ever get a vote at all.”
Mr. Lee, the son of Chinese immigrants, has consistently defended his actions as both legal and necessary to remedy a history of discrimination.
He told a House subcommittee that while he hoped the country would someday not need affirmative-action programs, “I don’t think that’s going to happen too soon unless we have some major changes in the way people see this problem.”
Last year, two conservative civil rights organizations, which actively opposed Mr. Lee’s original nomination, issued a scorching assessment of the civil rights lawyer.
The Center for Equal Opportunity and the Institute for Justice said in a report that Mr. Lee had a “long record of promoting discrimination on the basis of race and sex through preferences and quotas,” despite Supreme Court decisions overturning such policies.
The report said Mr. Lee had “pursued racial preferences with the zeal of an ideologue.”