Washington — There is likely to be more continuity than change in policy as Edwin Meese III takes over the US Department of Justice. Political and legal experts see these developments in the second presidential term: An even more vigorous effort to strengthen criminal law enforcement, including upgrading of federal relations with local police and tougher sentencing.
A continued conservative thrust in the area of states' rights and civil rights.
After a year-long probe into his ethics and financial dealings, and with the political controversy over his appointment still echoing from Capitol Hill, Mr. Meese was finally sworn in Monday as the 75th attorney general of the United States. The Senate had confirmed his appointment last week by a vote of 63 to 31, along party lines.
As he leaves the White House, where he was counsellor to the President, Meese is expected to pursue the broad policies of his predecessor, William French Smith. The former attorney general had already presided over deep changes in federal policy on civil rights, antitrust enforcement, and criminal justice -- moving the Justice Department to the right.
On the civil rights front, for example, the department has implemented the President's opposition to mandatory busing to achieve school desegration and to hiring or promotion quotas to remedy job discrimination. It has also narrowed its interpretation of the laws in connection with sex discrimination, housing discrimination, and the rights of the handicapped.
The department under Mr. Smith also revised the government's positions on antitrust law and gave high priority to the investigation of violent crime and the traffic in narcotics.
Because of his experience as deputy district attorney in Alameda County, Calif., it would be natural for Meese to focus heavily on law enforcement. ``He will see his goal as trying to bring more consistency and toughness in dealing with criminal law,'' says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. ``So there will likely be an effort to broaden the network between the FBI and the local police, upgrade crime statistics, and so on.''
Beyond that, say political and legal experts, the Justice Department under Attorney General Meese will likely pursue conservative policies in the civil rights area even more combatively. Throughout the first Reagan term Meese, as White House counselor to the President, played an instrumental role in policymaking in the civil rights area, often drawing the ire of civil libertarians and political moderates.
Among other things, he helped get the President to revamp the US Civil Rights Commission; spearheaded the drive against the Legal Services Corporation, which provides aid for the poor; and supported trying to lift the ban on tax-exempt status for schools that practice racial discrimination. He is also against ``judicial activism'' -- i.e., judges intruding into social issues such as mandatory school busing and affirmative action.
Extremely important in the four years ahead will be further appointments of federal judges. There are still some 100 vacancies. This means that by the time President Reagan leaves office he will have appointed the majority of judges to lower federal courts, and at least one Supreme Court justice.
To what extent Meese will be able to implement the President's agenda on such social issues as prayer in the schools and abortion is open to question. On some issues the Supreme Court has rebuffed the administration -- refusing, for instance, to give states and localities more say in regulating abortion. It is not clear, moreover, that the President will choose to invest much political capital pushing his social agenda when his top priorities are budget cutting and tax simplification.
Many observers wonder how good a manager Meese will prove to be. His predecessor won a reputation as an excellent administrator. Meese, whose strengths lie with the synthesizing and articulation of ideas, was often faulted for poor management at the White House.
During the Senate confirmation hearings even some Republican senators came to question Meese's fitness for the job, but they voted to confirm him. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R) of Maryland suggested that the Senate should now monitor the attorney general's performance. The very fact that the country would now be watching Meese would be ``conducive to a good conscience,'' Senator Mathias is quoted as saying.
While Meese faced a barrage of criticism for alleged ethical and financial improprieties, many who know him personally, including Democrats, speak highly of his sense of public service.
``His whole life has been lived with enormous straightforwardness and integrity,'' says one individual who has known him from the time of his college days. ``He's a harmonizer and a builder. I have high esteem for him.''