Trouble at the helm of Justice. Reynolds, of civil rights division, gains power

Who is running the United States Justice Department? Attorney General Edwin Meese III is busy with his own legal problems. Yesterday two key officials resigned: Arnold Burns, who holds the No. 2 job in the department, and William Weld, who runs the criminal division.

But the loss of these two top officials ``won't make much difference in terms of policy,'' says Burt Neuborne, a professor at New York University Law School. The reason, he says, is that a cadre of four or five people - led by William Bradford Reynolds, who is Mr. Meese's counsel as well as head of the department's civil rights division - have been making policy decisions for some time.

There is evidence that Mr. Reynolds is directing how the Justice Department will act over the next nine months. Last month, he distributed a five-page memo to heads of ``department components'' outlining the priorities and the tenor of future cases. The priority cases, he wrote, are those involving drugs, obscenity, and AIDS.

As for approach, he wrote, ``We must polarize the debate. We must not seek `consensus,' we must confront.''

Who wields influence in policymaking at the Justice Department is no small matter. Among other things, it is a large factor in determining what cases the department chooses to litigate and which people are nominated for federal judgeships. There are 42 US judgeships vacant today.

Meese, who was appointed attorney general in February 1985, has had his hands full with investigations by a special prosecutor into several situations in which his actions have been questioned: his role, while White House counsel, in attempts by Wedtech Corporation to secure government contracts; his activities in connection with efforts to build an Iraqi pipeline, including perhaps overlooking an attempt to pay off Israel not to sabotage the pipeline; and his meeting with heads of regional telephone companies in which he held shares while the Justice Department was considering restrictions on the companies.

He has also been questioned several times by the Iran-contra special prosecutor about the Justice Department's initial investigation of the affair.

Earlier, Meese was cleared by another special prosecutor of any wrongdoing after allegations about his financial affairs had been raised during confirmation hearings on his appointment as attorney general.

Although neither Deputy Attorney General Burns nor Assistant Attorney General Weld gave a reason for leaving in his resignation letter, the Associated Press quoted an unnamed Justice Department source as saying that Meese's legal problems were ``definitely a factor'' in both cases.

Some observers suggest that the resignations of Mr. Burns and Mr. Weld - both considered to be relatively independent and outside the Justice Department inner circle where power resides - are more than career moves.

``Weld and Burns are too sensitive to appearances for this [simultaneous resignations] to be a coincidence,'' says one close observer of the Justice Department, who requested anonymity.

He and others - including more than a dozen present and former Justice Department officials, congressional aides frequently in contact with the department, and legal scholars interviewed for this article - paint a picture of the Justice Department which may have clashed with the two men's styles. Two of Burns's assistants and and two of Weld's aides also resigned.

According to critics within and without, the department has increasingly become less committed to the nuts and bolts of running the country's legal affairs than to making an ideological statement.

Spokesmen for Meese say he works long hours and is not distracted by his legal affairs. But it has been estimated that the attorney general spends about 15 to 20 percent of his time on his own legal problems.

Professor Neuborne and other observers say that the vacuum left at the top by Meese's distractions has been filled by Mr. Reynolds. As evidence of this, Mr. Neuborne cites the stance the administration took on the civil rights bill, for example, and the nomination of Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg to the Supreme Court.

Many conservatives are happy with this situation. ``Brad Reynolds is the unsung hero of those who voted for Ronald Reagan in order to usher in a new way of thinking about politics and policy,'' says Bruce Fein, a legal scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

In 1985, the Senate rejected Reynolds, a controversial conservative, for No. 3 in the Justice Department.

Last May, Meese appointed Reynolds as his counselor. The move, which angered Republican and Democratic senators alike, gave Reynolds a wider berth than just the Civil Rights Division. Today, Neuborne says, echoing those inside and outside the department, ``My sense is he [Reynolds] is the single most influential person at the department.''

Dr. Fein agrees. ``We can find his imprint on the quality of judges that are being selected and the hard-nosed effort we're taking against drugs. His influence intellectually is sweeping.''

The emphasis on cases involving obscenity and AIDS in particular, while not stressing things like white-collar crime, organized crime, and corporate crime, ``made career Justice Department people shudder,'' says Julian Epstein, an aide to Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D) of Michigan, who heads the House subcommittee on criminal justice.

Reynolds's influence in the Justice Department dates back about three years, when he was US solicitor general. In November 1986, when the Iran-contra affair broke, Meese asked Reynolds to help him with the investigation. ``Rather than turn to Weld and the body of professional prosecutors, Meese turned to Reynolds and the people he trusted,'' one source notes.

This source believes that the frustration that Weld felt was one of the reasons Weld decided to resign yesterday. Another, he and others say, may be the fact that ``Weld doesn't like spending all of his time investigating his boss.'' While technically, independent counsel James McKay is investigating Meese, as head of the criminal division, Weld is overseeing the information that goes to the investigators.

Reynolds has also reached into other non-civil rights areas, including the selection of judges. He reportedly had a strong hand in choosing Bork. When things began to fall apart, Reynolds was on the Hill, trying to patch things up, one Senate aide says. When it looked like the administration was going to nominate Anthony Kennedy, considered a moderate and unpalatable to conservatives, Reynolds reportedly ``camped out'' in the White House and lobbied for Mr. Ginsburg, who was then nominated.

Conservatives and liberals alike note that the ideological thrust of the Justice Department has won few tangible victories, either in the courts or on the Hill. It has also resulted in some embarrassing failures, including earlier this month, when Congress overrode the President's veto of the civil rights bill. (``That was a Brad Reynolds special,'' says Neuborne.)

But Reynolds's ideas, if intangible, will not fade away, says Fein at the Heritage Foundation.

``In order to make lasting changes in policy, one must change the discourse and the vocabulary, one must get people thinking about new ways of viewing particular issues,'' he says.

``Brad Reynolds has done that single-handedly.''

Because of editing errors, the Monitor yesterday published incorrect information about William Bradford Reynolds, a key official in the Justice Department. Mr. Reynolds was identified in some March 30 editions as counsel to Mr. Meese, that is, his attorney. In fact, he is counselor - a general adviser - to Mr. Meese. Reynolds was also identified as a former solicitor general; he was an assistant to the solicitor general. Mr. Meese was also incorrectly identified as a former White House counsel; he was counselor to President Reagan.

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