Assault on Justice Department's Civil Rights Chief Countered

March 5, 1999

For Immediate Release

March 5, 1999

Contact Information:

Ken Weine, 212 998-6736

Assault on Justice Department’s Civil Rights Chief Countered

Brennan Center responds to attacks on Bill Lann Lee & refutes “quota king” label

Responding to attacks reminiscent of the successful smear campaign against Lani Guinier, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is vigorously defending Bill Lann Lee, the Justice Department’s chief civil rights official, and is calling upon the White House to do likewise.

A Brennan Center editorial defending Lee, Acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General, and rebutting public attacks against him appears in the March 22, 1999 issue of The Nation magazine. The editorial was written by Brennan Center Senior Attorney Deborah Goldberg.

According to Goldberg’s editorial: “[Orrin Hatch has called] for a “confirmable” candidate (read: one with no experience or commitment to civil rights). Fortunately, Clinton does not appear eager to re-enact the Guinier debacle.  But he has not vigorously defended Lee’s civil rights policy.”

Lee has been subjected to an orchestrated campaign of unfair criticism, according to the Brennan Center. Most recently, opponents have called him the “quota king” in part because of his efforts to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a federal law passed to end discrimination in elections. The law requires jurisdictions that had a history of such discrimination to submit proposed voting changes to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which Lee heads, for pre-clearance.

Although under Lee’s tenure the Civil Rights Division has handled pre-clearance requests in a measured and reasoned manner, opponents of civil rights have devoted great resources to misrepresenting Lee as having a “narrow race-conscious agenda.” For example, Lee’s critics complained about a recent decision not to approve a requested change in the voting method used for New York City community school board elections that would have dramatically hurt the ability of minority communities to achieve representation on the school boards. Lee’s office correctly concluded that it could not lawfully approve this change because it failed the tests set by the Voting Rights Act.

Controversy has surrounded the Civil Rights Division throughout President Clinton’s tenure. After conservatives labeled his 1992 nominee Lani Guinier the “quota queen,” Clinton angered many liberals by withdrawing her nomination. President Clinton then temporarily appointed Lee when the Senate Judiciary Committee made it clear that it would hold up Lee’s nomination for the position. On February 16, 1999, Committee Chair Orrin Hatch challenged the legality of Lee’s continuing appointment and called for a “confirmable” candidate. The White House has said it will stand by Lee and will re-nominate him in the very near future.

The Brennan Center is a nonprofit institute devoted to discourse and action on issues of justice central to the jurisprudence of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. Contact the Brennan Center, 212 998 6282, for additional information or a copy of The Nation editorial.