Meese and Civil Rights

By Ralph G. Neas

Vol. 6, No. 2, 1984, pp. 3-4

We are here this morning to announce that the Leadership Conference will strongly oppose the confirmation of Edwin Meese to be Attorney General of the United States.

In the course of its thirty-four years, the Conference has only rarely taken a position on a presidential nomination. Indeed, this is the first time in more than a decade that the Conference has opposed a Cabinet or Supreme Court level nomination. Only an extraordinary situation could compel such a decision.

The Conference position is not based primarily on the considerable differences that we have had with the substantive policies and programs initiated and developed by Mr. Meese in his role as coordinator of deomestic policy for the Reagan Administration. If such a standard had been applied in the past, we would have opposed more than a few nominations advanced in the last for administrations.

Bluntly put, we oppose the nomination because, on the basis of our observations over the past three years, we do not believe Ed Meese, as the nation's chief law enforcement officer, would enforce, vigorously and objectively, our nation's civil rights laws.

The extreme civil rights positions taken by Mr. Meese and the Reagan Administration are scandalous. Their efforts to defeat a strong and effective Voting Rights Act, to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment, to relax the obligations of school systems for educating handicapped children, to restrict constitutional remedies that have long been available, and to generally weaken almost all our civil rights laws, have demonstrated repeatedly the Administration's insensitivity, unfairness, and indifference to women, minorities, the disabled and many other victims of discrimination.

Regrettably, a brief look at the Administration's decision-making process on a number of critical rights issues will demonstrate that Ed Meese lacks the commitment to ensure that the laws are fully enforced and too often encroaches inappropriately upon the constitutional responsibilities of the Judicial and Legislative Branches.

The Bob Jones fiasco is perhaps the best example of what we are talking about. Since the early 1970's, it has been well established law that the government could not grant tax exempt status to schools which discriminate on the basis of race. Apparently, Mr. Meese and others wanted to change that policy. Rather than ask Congress to enact new legislation or ask the courts to reverse past rulings, the Administration announced on January 8, 1982 that it would no longer deny tax exempt status to schools like Bob Jones and Goldsboro Christian.

Because of the political firestorm that erupted, President Reagan, Mr. Meese, and others began a series of confusing and contradictory explanations. Eventually they backed off. But not until it became painfully apparent that Mr. Meese and his allies in the Administration were more than willing to refuse to enforce a law with which they disagreed. Subsequently, of course, the Supreme Court repudiated the Administration's legal position by an eight to one vote.

Another example is Mr. Meese's involvement in the Legal Services Corporation. It has long been clear that Mr. Meese has worked hard to abolish the Legal Service Corporation.

Furthermore, once Congress overwhelmingly rejected the Reagan Administration's attempts to kill the Corporation, President Reagan, through Mr. Meese and his staff, proceeded to do everything possible to gut it by executive action. Contrary to congressional intent, attempts were made to control the Legal Services Corporation by appointing individuals who would dismantle the Corporation from within.

Finally, there is the death of the independent U.S. Civil Rights Commission. For twenty-five years, no President had ever fired a member of the Commission. But thanks to the leadership role of Mr. Meese, President Reagan has fired five commissioners who disagreed with his civil rights policies and replaced them with commissioners who reflect his views. We now have the Reagan Commission on Civil Rights.

The actions and attitudes of Edwin Meese as presidential counselor are, by themselves, deeply disturbing. But when you combine the possible confirmation of Ed Meese with the Department of Justice's current record of non-enforcement with respect to civil rights laws, you have a Justice


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Department in constant conflict with the Constitution and the courts, and the rule of law itself is imperiled.

While the Justice Department constantly uses the issues of busing and quotas to deflect attention from its abysmal enforcement record, its record cannot be hidden from full public scrutiny too much longer. For example, in the first thirty months of the Reagan Administration, it had filed one school desegregation suit. And that suit was pursuant to a court order. In fair housing, it had filed six cases, compared to forty-six cases filed by the previous administration in the same amount of time. With respect to all civil cases filed, the Reagan Administration had filed forty-two, compared to 124 cases for the Carter Administration, a precipitous decrease of sixty-six percent.

It is no wonder that based on the Department's rhetoric and its record of non-enforcement, minorities, women, the disabled and others no longer view the Justice Department as the champion for those who have been the victims of discrimination. Rather they consider the Department of Justice their adversary.

The confirmation of Ed Meese, someone who has already demonstrated that he is not committed to vigorously enforcing our civil rights laws, would only reinforce that belief. I he Senate must only confirm an individual who will enforce the law, someone who will be an Attorney General for all the people, not just for the privileged few. To do less will compound immeasurably the tragedy of the Reagan record on civil rights.

An excerpt from the statement of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights opposing the nomination of Edwin Meese to be Attorney General. Ralph G. Neas is executive director of the Leadership Conference, a coalition of 165 national organizations representing blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans, women, labor, the disabled, the aged, religious groups and minority businesses and professions.