BOSTON — PRESIDENT Clinton tried to take the offensive as he defended his latest choice for the top civil rights post in the Justice Department.
A fight over the nomination of Deval Patrick to be assistant attorney general for civil rights - if one develops - could be a test of the limits of ``borking'' (coined from the ideological opposition to former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork). The main criticism of Mr. Patrick so far stems simply from his association with a respected civil rights organization.
On Tuesday, President Clinton tapped Patrick, a Boston lawyer who previously worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, to head the division of the Justice Department that enforces civil rights laws. The post has been vacant since Clinton took office.
In April, Clinton nominated Lani Guinier, a law school professor and former colleague of Patrick's at the Legal Defense Fund, but the president withdrew support amid controversy over what were characterized as extreme views in her writings on the Voting Rights Act.
Initial response from black leaders and civil rights activists to Patrick's nomination has been positive but cautious. James Vorenberg, a Harvard Law School professor who has known Patrick since college, says Patrick is ``a first-rate lawyer who is tremendously committed to service'' and that Clinton made ``a great nomination.'' But outside the Legal Defense Fund, where he is still a director, Patrick is not well known within the civil rights community.
The only significant early opposition to the nomination came in a way that was almost identical to the first attacks on Ms. Guinier. The day after her nomination, Clint Bolick, a lawyer with the conservative Institute for Justice in Washington, published an article in the Wall Street Journal lambasting her views and tagging her a ``quota queen.'' The phrase and the thrust of Mr. Bolick's critique were picked up by other critics and the media.
Bolick took center stage again with an article in the Wall Street Journal - though this time he foreshadowed the article with press releases in which he dubbed Patrick a ``stealth Guinier.'' Bolick contends that, while Patrick lacks Guinier's extensive paper trail, the nominee shares her ``radical'' views.
Bolick infers Patrick's views from what he says is the agenda of the Legal Defense Fund - ``race quotas, busing, and minority contract set-asides.''
He adds: ``The views of the Legal Defense Fund shouldn't be the civil rights enforcement touchstone.''
Bolick may have a hard sell, however. The Legal Defense Fund is the organization in which former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall for many years waged his legal fight against segregation.
In his Feb. 2 Wall Street Journal article, Bolick contrasts Patrick's alleged civil rights views with those of Harvard Law School Prof. Randall Kennedy. But Professor Kennedy says he ``is filled with admiration for the work done by lawyers at the Legal Defense Fund ... who are working to undo the history of racism in this country.''