Lucas Doesn't Measure Up

IT'S clear why many civil rights groups oppose the nomination of William Lucas to be the top civil rights lawyer at the Justice Department. He hasn't marched arm-in-arm with them through the civil rights battles of the last 30 years, and they don't like the way he views recent Supreme Court decisions restricting affirmative action. What's not clear is why the Bush administration supports the nominee, other than he's black, Republican, and a (very inexperienced) lawyer. The administration's unexplained backing of Mr. Lucas, more than the expected opposition of the civil rights lobby, leaves us with reservations about Lucas's qualifications for the important post of assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Naturally, the civil rights lobby wants a champion in the administration, one who endorses its approach to broadening rights for minorities. The approach embraces such race-conscious devices as hiring quotas, set-aside programs, and laws allowing discrimination suits even in the absence of discriminatory intent. That's just one approach to helping minorities, however, and one that opponents say moves America away from becoming a color-blind society. A conservative administration has the prerogative to appoint a civil rights lawyer that shares its outlook.

The ``color-blind'' philosophy - whether one agrees with it or not - is an intellectually and morally defensible posture, and there are conservatives who can articulate it cogently, even passionately. They include a majority of the current Supreme Court, new solicitor general Kenneth Starr, former judge Robert Bork, and black economist Thomas Sowell. Unfortunately, they don't include Bill Lucas.

If Lucas hasn't read and thought enough about civil rights issues - as his confirmation testimony last week made clear he hasn't - even to advocate persuasively the administration's own view, what does he bring to the nation's dialogue on one of its most wrenching problems? How can he be a constructive force? And what did President Bush expect to achieve by nominating a man who, even by conservatives' own lights, appears to be underqualified? Did the President and his attorney general lapse into tokenism, thinking that Lucas's race was qualification enough?

In many ways Lucas is an admirable man. The son of poor immigrants, he struggled upward and, by hard work, has had a successful career in law enforcement and politics. (A few small ethical lapses that have come to light, though regrettable, don't amount to much in the context of a long and praiseworthy career.) In his heart, he probably does believe strongly in the principle of equal rights for all.

But he's never demonstrated leadership for civil rights, even as defined by conservatives, and his inability in his hearings to address the issues knowledgeably and forcefully makes one wonder about his self-professed ``fire in the belly.''

The Bush administration can, without sacrificing its principles, do better than this nomination. In its own interests, it should.

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