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Statement of Sen. Patrick Leahy

Full text of the Nov. 6, 1997, remarks by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on "The Targeting of Bill Lann Lee by the Senate’s Republican Leadership."

It seems that the Republican leadership is determined to sacrifice Bill Lann Lee’s nomination to narrow ideological politics. If the Republican leadership were to allow the Senate to vote of this outstanding nominee, I have no doubt that a majority of the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, would vote to confirm him. Unfortunately, press accounts this morning indicate that conservative Republicans have vowed not to allow this nomination to be considered by the Senate before adjournment this year.

The reason the Republican leadership gives for trying to kill this nomination is that Bill Lann Lee agrees with the President. It is not so much about Bill Lee as Bill Clinton. Well the President won election and re-election. For the Senate to refuse to proceed on this nomination because Mr. Lee honestly testified that he would adhere to policies of equal justice consistent with those of the President is wrong.

The Republican leaders were prodded into this by the narrow ideological extreme right of their party and its allies. They have not brought forward their bill on affirmative action, the California Prop 209 case is over, the good people of Houston rejected efforts to abandon those previously discriminated against, and now the extreme right wants a trophy. They have settled on Bill Lann Lee as a convenient target.

What kind of example does this set and what kind of signal does this send? Bill Lee’s life story is an American success story. He is the son of immigrants who struggled against discrimination. He has spent his professional career working to solve civil rights problems and diffuse conflict. His record of achievement is exemplary. He is a man of integrity and honor, as even those opposing him must concede. When he said to the Judiciary Committee that quotas are illegal and wrong and that he would enforce the law, no one should have any doubt about his resolve to do what is right.

He is a person with great problem-solving skills, someone who can move this country forward on the difficult issues of discrimination. Such matters are too important to be used for political purposes or as wedge issues to divide people but, unfortunately, too often they are. What is promising about this nomination is that Bill Lee is the person with the credentials, credibility and creativity to help move America and all Americans forward.

Any fair-minded review of his 23-year career shows him to be well-suited to head the Civil Rights Division. It shows where he has been and where the law has been and how we have moved forward to refine remedial approaches to discrimination and its vestiges. One measure of this extraordinary individual are the testimonies of support provided by so many of his litigation opponents over the years, support based on his fairness and good sense, support from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Just this summer, the Senate moved forward to confirm another Assistant Attorney General, someone who had expressly declined to follow the language of the Telecommunications Act’s House-Senate conference report and had raised concerns among a number of Senators. We were told that the standard to be employed in evaluating these nominees was not to hold a nominee hostage to policy differences with the Administration but to vote for the nominee, if well-qualified, to permit the Justice Department to proceed with a confirmed division chief, and for us in Congress to move forward and work with the Administration in the formulation and implementation of effective policies.

Unfortunately, with this nomination, that of the first Asian-American to head the Civil Rights Division, the rules are being changed and the standards are being moved. First, it appeared that the Republicans wished to raise their concerns with the nominee and point out their differences with Administration policy, as is traditionally done. Then the focus was on Mr. Lee’s possible involvement in Supreme Court consideration of the California Proposition 209 case. When Mr. Lee came forward and recused himself from involvement in that case, the suggestion was made that the Department of Justice abstain from filing a brief in that case should certiorari be granted.

That suggestion was properly rejected. Indeed, I would think that the Supreme Court would be likely to request the views of the United States Government if they were not tendered in an amicus brief. Surely imposition of this suggested gag rule on the United States on issues of significance and concern in order to confirm a nominee who would not even be involved in formulating the U.S. position would have been ill-advised.

This week the Supreme Court denied review in the California Proposition 209 case. If Bill Lee’s recusal did not clear the way for his confirmation, surely, one would have thought, this action by the Supreme

Court removed the immediate obstacle that had been seized upon by the opposition. Instead, the grounds for opposition shifted. It now appears that in order to be confirmed to lead the Civil Rights Division, the nominee must not only commit to uphold the law but disavow the President who has nominated him to serve in this Administration. Before we are done I expect that the nominee would be required to endorse S.950, a bill that the Senate has not considered nor the Congress enacted.

I think it beneath Senators to suggest that this fine nominee ought be rejected because a previous, unqualified Republican nominee had been rejected by the Committee. Tit for tat may be the rule in the alley, but should not govern the actions of the United States Senate. Nonetheless, there seems to be a lot of "pay back" motivating those opposing this fine man.

I regret that a narrow, ideological litmus test is being proposed that would require nominees to disavow remedies and approaches that the Supreme Court has held to be constitutional and necessary to enforce our commitment to equal opportunity. It is the Administration’s commitment to affirmative action and equal justice that would have to be sacrificed. I know that Bill Lee would not compromise his commitment to enforce the law and to seek equal justice for all Americans.

Moreover, if accepted by a partisan majority, that political litmus test will know no natural limit. It could infect the confirmation of the Associate Attorney General, the Solicitor General and all other nominations.

I regret that some have decided to oppose this good man. He would, in my view, enforce the law, use his problem-solving skills and proven ability to move the country forward and build on the progress that we have been able to make in remedying past discrimination over the last several years. It appears now that for this nomination to prevail in Committee it will take a profile in courage by a couple Republican members. I urge each member to consider his or her vote carefully and what it means for this nomination, for the country and for standards being created for future nominations.

There is a place to consider the important issues involved in the debate over race relations in the country and the constitutionality of affirmative action that the Supreme Court has held to be constitutional. That should not be the issue with respect to the vote on this nominee, however.

When Bill Lee appeared before the Committee with his family he testified candidly about his views, his work and his values. He articulated to us that he understands that as the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division his client is the United States and all of its people.

He told us poignantly about why he became a person who has dedicated his life to equal justice for all when he spoke of the treatment that his parents received as immigrants. Mr. Lee told us how in spite of his father’s personal treatment and experiences, William Lee remained a fierce American patriot, volunteered to serve in the United States Army Air Corps in World War II and never lost his belief in America.

He inspired his son just as Bill Lee now inspires his own children and countless others across the land. They are the kind of everyday heroes that our nation honors. Mr. Lee told us:

"My father is my hero, but I confess that I found it difficult for many years to appreciate his unflinching patriotism in the face of daily indignities. In my youth, I did not understand how he could remain so deeply grateful to a country where he and my mother faced so much intolerance. But I began to appreciate that the vision he had of being an American was a vision so compelling that he could set aside the momentary ugliness. He knew that the basic American tenet of equality of opportunity is the bedrock of our society."

I know that Bill Lee will remain true to all that his father taught him and hope that the "momentary ugliness" of people opposing his nomination based on an ideological litmus test of people distorting his achievements and beliefs and of some succumbing to narrow partisanship will not be his reward for a career of good works. Such treatment drives good people from public service and distorts the role of the Senate.

I have often referred to the Senate as acting at its best when it serves as the conscience of the nation. In this case, I am afraid that the Senate may show no conscience.

I call on the Senate’s Republican leadership to end their targeting of Bill Lann Lee and to work with us to bring this nomination to the floor without obstruction so that the Senate may vote and we may confirm a fine person to lead the Civil Rights Division into the next century.

I ask that recent editorials on this matter from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the Washington Post be included in the record.

© Copyright 1997 Digital Ink Company


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