A bitter controversy has broken out within the Justice Department over a new personnel policy that many department attorneys contend is a "reverse discrimination" system to give blacks and woman perference in hiring and promotions.
The charge is denied by top aides to Attorney General Griffin B. Bell. They say the policy's intent is to ensure equal career opportunities within the department to all qualified lawyers, regardless of race or sex.
Despite these denials, the new policy reportedly has had a chilling effect on morale among the department's approximately 3,500 staff attorneys. Although precise numbers could not be immediately obtained yesterday, the great majority of these staff lawyers are white males.
Many of them say privately that the policy, as stated in internal department memos, is an open invitation for any white male who is refused a job or promotion to sue the federal government on charges of employment discrimination.
At issue is a May 20 memo sent to all U.S. attorneys by Associate Attorney General Michael J. Egan. It announced establishment of an Employment Review COmmittee to be jointly headed by Assistant Attirneys General Barbara A. Babcock, head of the Civil Division, and Drew S. Days III, chief of the Civil Rights Division. Babcock is a woman, and Days is black.
The memo said that U.S. attorneys "will be required to notify the committee before hiring or promoting a person at the salary level of $24,300 or above who is neither a woman nor a minority and explain to the satisfaction of the committee that there was no discrimination against women or minorities against women or minorities in selecting the person for promotion or hiring."
It added that any hiring or promotion recommendations in these categories must "include an appropriate explanation" of why the person recommended had been selected.
In the view of many department lawyers, including some who are specialists in prosecuting and defending employment discriminatiion suits, many U.S. attorneys and other department supervisors are certain to interpret this language as a veiled instruction to give preference to women and blacks.
Some also contend that the presence of Babcock and Days at the head of the committee raises conflict-of-interest questions about how the department will react to any suits that might be brought by white male lawyers.
The Civil Division is responsible for defending the department and other federal agencies against damage suits. But the Civil Rights Division has farreaching responsibilities under federal law for investigating allegations that a person's civil rights have been violated.
The question of where the line is drawn between government efforts to promote minority employment opportunities and illegally discriminating against others has not been decided by the courts.
In the meantime, many department lawyers ask, where would Babcock and Days, who are responsible for implementing the new policy, put their emphasis if a white male attorney raised the question by charging discrimination?
Some department sources charge that Babcock already has gone beyond Egan's memo. They point to a recent memo in which she stated that the Civil Division is devoting its entire law student summer intern program "to minority hiring and has succeeded in filling the program with blacks and Latinos."
In a telephone interview yesterday, Babcock said these various charges were due to misunderstandings, and expressed dismay that "this program has scared people." She added: "Drew and I intend to demonstrate, both in the workings of the review committee and in actual hiring and promotion practice, that the futures of qualified white men in the Justice Department are bright."
She conceded that the purpose of the policy was to rectify "the gross under-represecntation" of women and minorities within the department. But she continued.
"There is no intention of doing that by denying promotions to those who deserve them on merit. The sole purpose is to force those who do the hiring and promoting to think in terms of a wider pool of potential taient and to take women and minorities into consideration when they're making recommendations."
Babcock acknowledged that department policymakers did not seek an opinion about the legality of the policy, and conceded that it "very likely could touch of suits by wnite male attorneys." She expressed hope, though, that much of the tension could be defused as the program goes into peration and is explained better to department employees.
She also said that the summer intern program traditionally has been used as a recruiting device to get young lawyers interested in the department and that she therefore felt it was permissible to use it in the recruitment of minorities.