Civil Rights Vacancy

AS President Clinton looks ahead to the new year, nominating a new candidate to head the Justice Department's civil rights division should get a high priority.

So far, he has done well at bringing blacks and Hispanics into several top jobs in his administration. And the passion evident in his speech on crime, delivered from the pulpit in Memphis where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final sermon, suggests a deep concern about the social challenges facing society in general and the black community in particular.

As important as these steps are symbolically, however, the civil rights division, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (also without a Clinton appointee at its head), and similar agencies are the offices charged with bringing civil rights laws to bear on the lives of individual citizens.

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Unfortunately, the withdrawal last week of the president's second nominee, John Payton, to head the civil rights division means a further delay in filling this key post, which by some accounts may not be filled until June.

The process still seems to be caught in the undertow of Lani Guinier's failed nomination last spring and, more directly, by comments Mr. Payton made last month to the Congressional Black Caucus.

Two points troubled many caucus members. The first was Mr. Payton's noncommittal answers to questions about use of the Voting Rights Act to reshape congressional districts and bring about fairer minority representation. That approach helped bring several black freshmen to the House in the 1992 elections. Noncommittal answers ahead of Senate confirmation hearings are typical. Given the controversy Ms. Guinier's views on the subject aroused, the administration's handling of her nomination, and Payton's valuable experience in litigating civil rights cases, caucus members could have given him the benefit of the doubt, pending his appearance before the Senate. But he did himself further disservice with a group keenly interested in voting rights by noting that he hadn't voted in the last 16 years.

Many of Mr. Clinton's high-profile initiatives, such as the budget package last spring and the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed by slim margins in the House. In the end, the administration decided it didn't need another battle with the caucus. Payton withdrew. The president should move quickly to nominate a replacement.

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