The government jobs no one wants

By , Nina Totenberg is the legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio.

With applicants scrambling frantically for jobs in the Reagan administration, you would think that every position is a prize plum. But there is a distinct category of jobs that nobody seems to want; the civil rights enforcement jobs in this nation's government seem to be the pariahs of this administration.

Already several persons have turned down the top civil rights jobs at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education and the chairmanship of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

But nowhere is the inability to fill a top civil rights job more significant than at the Justice Department where the once coveted job of assistant attorney general for civil rights has been vacant for close to four months. It is a job that, according to sources both inside and outside the government, has been proffered tentatively to several lawyers, and in every case it has been turned down flatly.

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As one Justice Department source put it, "Our difficulty lies in the narrow criteria we've set for the position." Those criteria were outlined to this reporter by Deputy Attorney General Edward T. Schmults, who said the assistant attorney general for civil rights will be in charge of reversing the established policies in busing and affirmative action. President Reagan campaigned on promises to get rid of busing and affirmative action, and, said Schmults, those promises are going to be kept.

That is one reason Republican blacks have been uninterested in the job. As one of them put it, "You may disagree with some aspects of busing or affirmative action, but I don't know any Republican black who would be interested in presiding over the dismantling of the civil rights enforcement machinery of the country." Clarence Mitchell, the head of the LEadership Conference on Civil Rights, notes that the Reagan administration is neutral even on such civil rights articles of faith as extension of the Voting Rights Act. And Mitchell speculates that the administration will continue to have trouble attracting minorities to civil rights jobs unless it softens its stands in some areas.

As for some of the white lawyers who have been approached to head the civil rights division, they aren't interested in an essentially negative job.

Certainly the attorney general could find some cipher to fill the civil rights post. But to his credit, Attorney General William French Smith is sticking to his guns, looking for a high-caliber person.

While the search for a civil rights chief continues, the division is being run temporarily on a day-to-day basis by a career Justice Department lawyer. But Attorney General Smith has brought in a Republican attorney from outside the department to act as a kind of liaison and to make sure that some control is being exercised from the top.

There are other jobs unfilled at the Justice Department. The assistant attorney general for the civil rights division has not yet been chosen. And some sources suggest that the Reagan administration is searching for a black to fill that post as a sort of package deal with the civil rights division top job.

The solicitor general's spot is also officially unfilled. But sources say Rex Lee, dean of Brigham Young Law School, has been picked for the position.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Smith reportedly is getting close to naming a new civil rights chief. According to sources, one name under consideration is that of Leno Graglia, a University of Texas professor who wrote a book entitled "Disaster By Decree," which damns busing. Former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Drew Days terms Graglia's rhetoric so inflammatory that "it is almost on the level of 'would you want your daughter to marry one.'"

Naming Graglia would certainly be a symbolically confrontational gesture. But Deputy Attorney General Schmults, who is screening job applicants at Justice , says he isn't interested in symbols or confrontations. "The only reason we've taken so long on the civil rights job," he says, "is that we consider it a very important job, and we are proceeding very carefully." Schmults said he is intent on finding someone of the highest caliber. He conceded that lawyers with civil rights expertise would probably not be interested in heading up a dramatic change of policy. But, he added, "we are absolutely dedicated to the notion of enforcing civil rights in this country.

Few in the white community doubt the sincerity of Mr. Schmults's words. But in the respectable, established black community there are real doubts, as well as growing anger. The kind of person chosen for the top civil rights job at Justice will, in an d of itself, be a symbol, and the appointment, like it or not, will send a message.

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