The White House has asked the Justice Department if it would be constitutional to extend the deadline for ratifying the faltening Equal Rights Amendments.
The action was disclosed yesterday by Attorney General Griffin B. Bell on the "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC) television program.
Bell said the opinion was sought by White House counsel Robert Lipshutz about two weeks ago and it should be ready in a week to 10 days. The White House supports the ERA, which would become the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and would ban federal and state discrimination based on sex.
Congress approved the measure in 1972. The Constitution provides that amendments must be ratified by three quarters of the states but does not specify a time limit.
When Congress passed the ERA, it set the deadline at March 22, 1979, seven years being the traditional period for ratifications. In January Indiana became the 35th state to approve the ERA, but efforts to secure the required 38 have failed. Three states - Idaho, Tennessee and Nebraska have withdrawn their original approval although the legality of those actions is in doubt.
Some lawyers in the women's movement notably Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Columbia University law professor - have argued that Congress has absolute authority to determine an amendment's ratification time limit and that it can extend the period by majority vote.
Common Cause President David Cohen said yesterday that regardless of any move to extend the limit, his 250,000-member lobbying organization would continue to push in such states as Virginia, North Carolina and Florida for ratification by 1979.
The White House has strongly backed the ERA. Other supporters have been pessimistic about the chances that three more states would ratify it before the deadline. Cohen said yesterday. "It will be an uphill fight."
On another subject Bell said there may be "some indictments" of other FBI officials in the department's probe of wiretapping, burglaries and mail openings by the bureau in the early 1970s.
John Kearney, a former FBI agent who from 1970 to June 1972, was in charge of a New York squad investigating the Weather Underround, has been dicted on five felony counts stemming from such crimes allegedly committed by agents under his supervision. The Weather Underground was a radical group believed to be responsible for several terrorist bombings. Kearney is the only official to be indicted in the 16-month investigation.
Bell also said he is "satisfied" that the Mafia has not penetrated the FBI in any significant way. "Somebody might get a document . . . but there has been no penetration in the sense of getting into the files in any more than a very minimum way," he said.