- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

President George W. Bush has selected Boston lawyer Ralph Boyd to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Mr. Boyd, if confirmed, will run the most important civil-rights office in the federal government.

"If confirmed are," of course, the critical words in the foregoing sentence, not to mention Mr. Boyd's future. The job Mr. Boyd would hold is a sub-Cabinet position. But the officeholder must deal with a series of issues that in the past 20 years have become among the most contentious in our politics redistricting, school desegregation, affirmative action and abortion. Sides left and right duel over these issues and, when the time comes to nominate a division head, over the person designated to manage them. It's an understatement to say there have been casualties.

William Lucas, former President Bush's first choice for the job, in 1989 couldn't win Senate approval. And Lani Guinier, another first choice by President Clinton in 1993 withdrew when her nomination came under intense fire. Bill Lann Lee, Mr. Clinton's choice to succeed Deval Patrick, who was actually confirmed but whose tenure was filled with dispute, was never approved by the Senate. (Mr. Clinton appointed Mr. Lee anyway itself a controversial act.)

Even William Bradford Reynolds, Ronald Reagan's first and only civil rights chief, was a casualty: His years in office drew such controversy he was denied promotion in 1985 to the department's third-ranking position.

Mr. Boyd, who is 44 and happens to be black, would appear to have a good shot at being confirmed. His educational background is superior: Haverford College and the Harvard Law School. He is now in private practice but recently served six years as an assistant United States attorney in Boston, winning a reputation as a tough-minded, hard-working prosecutor of gun-crime and gang cases.

Mr. Boyd doesn't have a civil rights record. You might think this hole in his resume would have disqualified him in Mr. Bush's eyes. In fact, it probably helped. Both Ms. Guinier and Mr. Lee were civil rights lawyers of the hard-left variety and their nominations failed as a result of the controversies ignited over their views. Probably the last thing Mr. Bush wanted in a nominee for this particular position was a known conservative civil-rights advocate.

Liberal interest groups already are grousing about Mr. Boyd's civil-rights inexperience. Which is to say: They have nothing in this area to shoot at. Indeed, his nomination would seem for them generally a problem. Clearly, he is not another Bill Lucas. Mr. Lucas also lacked a civil rights record, but the rest of his resume was lackluster, including mainly local government and law enforcement experience. The argument was plausibly made by liberal groups that he was not qualified for the job, and Mr. Lucas's indifferent performance at his confirmation hearings was, to say no worse of it, an ineffective counter.

Mr. Boyd's educational background and his work as a federal prosecutor would seem sufficiently impressive to answer any argument that he might not be up to the job. Indeed, the Bush administration is seeking to make his prosecutorial career a virtue. "We are casting the job as a law-enforcement function," one Bush appointee told me. Witnesses on Mr. Boyd's behalf will doubtless include former colleagues who credit him with helping produce Boston's huge downturn in gun crime.

Mr. Boyd could trip up during his hearings. There is always, for any nominee, that possibility. Assuming his confirmation, Mr. Boyd will be part of an administration that has spent its first two months trying to overcome the sharp racial divide in the country captured by postelection polls, by reaching out to minorities. Mr. Bush's first civil-rights initiative proposes to end racial profiling in law enforcement, and his second, which Attorney General John Ashcroft announced last week, addresses election irregularities in Florida and other states.

Neither initiative is especially controversial. Both enjoy support across the political spectrum. But the time is coming and will arrive once Mr. Boyd is confirmed when Mr. Bush, and his Justice Department, will have to make choices on the civil-rights issues that divide the country. The largest set involve the legality of using race and ethnicity to admit students to universities; to hire, promote or fire workers; and to award government contracts. Cases abound in these areas. Justice is a party in some, a friend-of-the-court in others.

If, as is reasonable to expect, the department presses for colorblind law, our politics will resume familiar but unavoidable, and indeed necessary, arguments.

Terry Eastland is a free-lance writer specializing in law and politics. His most recent book is "Freedom of Expression in the Supreme Court."


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