- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

The White House yesterday denied that its hesitation to join a Supreme Court battle over affirmative action was connected to lingering raw feelings from last month's racial flap over Sen. Trent Lott.
Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer, in response to an article in The Washington Times yesterday, said President Bush was taking a "wait and see" approach because he wants to weigh the case on its merits.
White student applicants are trying to overturn the University of Michigan's preferential treatment of black and Hispanic applicants.
"It is a landmark case and a case that's important and a case that the president, who is very sensitive to issues involving diversity and opportunity for all, wants to make sure that it's approached in a thorough and careful, deliberative manner," Mr. Fleischer said.
The Justice Department has already sent the White House a brief backing the white students, who object to the school's practice of automatically giving minorities 20 points on a 150-point admissions scale.
Mr. Bush has until Thursday to decide whether to endorse the Justice opinion by sending an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of the white students.
"The deadline is a week from today, and that's a lot of time," Mr. Fleischer said. "I'm not indicating whether the administration will or won't or, if we do, what it might say."
Mr. Bush has long endorsed admissions based on merit, regardless of race, which he calls "affirmative access." Yesterday, Mr. Fleischer declined to say whether that policy is consistent with the Michigan practice of awarding points based on skin color.
"That's what is exactly under review, among a number of other factors," he said in response to questions from The Times. "And we'll know when the review is complete."
White House officials have been leaning against weighing in on the racially charged case, although they could change their minds before the deadline.
Some Republicans believe the White House is wary of wading into a racially charged case so soon after Mr. Lott was forced to relinquish his job as Senate Republican leader. The Mississippi Republican was savaged for praising the 1948 presidential campaign of retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina at his 100th birthday party on Dec. 5.
Although Mr. Lott never mentioned Mr. Thurmond's endorsement of segregation in that race, he later issued numerous apologies in an attempt to placate critics in the press and Democratic Party. Since Mr. Lott stepped down Dec. 20, some of those critics have accused the Republican Party in general of racism.
Asked yesterday by The Times whether fallout from the Lott debacle was prompting the president's cautious approach to the case, Mr. Fleischer said no.
Charges of racial insensitivity were resurrected this week when Mr. Bush renominated U.S. District Court Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi for an appeals court seat. Last year, Democrats blocked a vote by the full Senate on the original nomination, saying Mr. Pickering had a record of racial insensitivity.
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas Democrat, argues that Judge Pickering has questioned the role of federal courts in enforcing voting rights; criticized the one-person, one-vote doctrine; and demonstrated a "passionate reluctance" to battle employment discrimination.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the all-Democrat Congressional Black Caucus, yesterday said Judge Pickering and the president's other judicial picks "could completely overturn the progress toward national reconciliation that our nation has made during the last 50 years."
Although Republicans have since wrested Senate control from the Democrats, liberals expressed surprise when the president renominated Judge Pickering in the wake of the Lott debacle.
Mr. Fleischer mounted a spirited defense of the embattled judge, accusing "liberal Democrats" of playing the race card instead of admitting they oppose Mr. Pickering's conservative views.
Liberals are expected to redouble their accusations of Republican racism if Mr. Bush sides with the white students in the Michigan case. The White House appeared mindful of political fallout from such a scenario.
"I think it's fair to say that the president approaches this issue the way he has as a governor of a very ethnically diverse Texas as somebody who's very sensitive to the importance of issues involving race and diversity and opportunity for all," Mr. Fleischer said. "He approaches it out of a lifetime of care and concern on these types of important, sensitive issues involving civil rights."

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