Justice Department under Meese: gauging its tilt to the right

While coverage of the nation's legal issues is focused on personnel changes in the United States Supreme Court and congressional battles over nominations of controversial federal judges appointed by President Reagan, the public may be missing America's top law saga: the politicizing of the Justice Department under Attorney General Edwin Meese III. But CBS law correspondent Fred Graham -- who seldom misses a beat on the ``big'' story -- is right on target in Justice for All (PBS, Wed., 9-10, check local listings).

Graham takes a peek behind the department's closed doors (obviously with the knowledge and cooperation of the occupants) and picks up snippets about cases and policy involving issues ranging from drugs to affirmative action. But it's really the out-in-the-open stuff that makes the best drama and will hold viewer interest.

Emerging from a handful of clerks and barristers in the days of George Washington, the Justice Department -- now the nation's largest and most influential law office -- employs 62,000 people, 4,000 of them lawyers.

What does this bureaucratic army do?

The pat answer is that it carries out the law in fair and impartial fashion. But, according to Mr. Meese, there is also a mandate to implement the philosophical principles of the White House. And there's the rub: this philosophy is the basis for what could become the hottest constitutional debate in 200 years.

Meese's candor on the politicizing of Justice is perhaps more startling than the actions themselves. The Attorney General certainly is not bucking for a future in the diplomatic corps. He frankly admits that he is the President's man and that it is his objective to tilt the course of justice in the US toward conservative ideology.

Of course, insists Meese, this will not subvert justice but broaden its application.

Political agendas for Justice, of course, didn't start with the ``Great Communicator'' and his longtime crony, Ed Meese. John Kennedy installed brother Bobby as attorney general to carry out his administration's desegregation policies in the South. And Richard Nixon's former law partner, John Mitchell, spearheaded more than a little ``selective prosecution'' of campus radicals as Justice's chief before getting caught up in the web of Watergate.

What makes the present attorney general's thrust different? Is it just a question of partisan tastes? Are the Democrats and liberals who today charge the Reagan administration with political tampering and rerouting of the rule of law guilty of the same kind of political rhetoric used by Republican conservatives during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations?

``Justice for All'' stresses that Meese has simply gone too far. And it trots out a host of respected legal scholars, albeit Democrats -- among them former Attorneys General Nicholas Katzenbach and Griffin Bell, ex-civil rights chief Drew Days, and Columbia Law School Dean (recently named as the next Yale president) Benno C. Schmidt, Jr. -- to reinforce this argument.

A big part of the Meese Justice Department's agenda is to get Reagan-like judges appointed to federal courts, indeed even the Supreme Court. Once this is accomplished, the department and its chief prosecutor, the Solicitor General, would have a much better chance of altering the law.

The Justice Department's crime and social agendas are, not surprisingly, identical to those of the White House. On the crime side, the emphasis is on cracking down on drug traffic and organized crime. Critics raise more questions about methods than motives in this area.

But that agenda also calls for reshaping national policy on social questions, including abortion, affirmative action, and school prayer. This is where the real controversy over the role of the department arises. Critics insist the ultimate aim is to bend the Constitution to majority-mainstream-Caucasian interests, at the expense of women, blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities.

Defenders, including the Attorney General himself, say they just want to tilt things back to center, after several decades of excessive civil-rights laws that discriminate against the majority.

This documentary vividly makes its point. It's guilty, however, of trying to stuff too much good material into 60 minutes and of betraying an obvious liberal bias. But ``Justice For All'' is certainly well worth watching, particularly on the eve of Miss Liberty's new unveiling and next year's constitutional bicentennial.

Curtis J. Sitomer writes the Monitor's ``Justice'' column.

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