Reagan Justice Department officials have moved to control the politically sensitive civil rights division with actions that have alarmed some division attorneys.
Even routine filings in school desegregation, voting and prison cases have been reviewed at top levels of the department. Lobbying by state and local officials and members of Congress has been intense, and effective, in some key cases.
Civil rights division attorneys and activists fear this signals a major shift in the policy of action in civil rights cases the federal government has pursued since the 1950s. Attorney General William French Smith signaled this radical change in emphasis in a major speech a few days ago, saying the Reagan administration would forsake mandatory busing and racial quotas as remedies.
Michael H. Sussman, a young department attorney who worked on the controversial Chicago school desegregation case before leaving Justice last week, wrote Smith a scathing memo, saying his speech offered comfort to civil rights violators who resist meaningful remedies.
Several experienced attorneys in the division have adopted a wait-and-see attitude about the effect of the sharpened controls on long-range policy. Others report a feeling of anxiety about future directions.
A few, like Sussman, complain that the government's enforcement effort has been weakened and legal positions in important cases jeopardized by the new administration's eagerness to please members of Congress and state and local officials whose jurisdictions are targets.
Deputy attorney general Edward C. Schmults says he has paid especially close attention to civil rights cases "given the magnitude of concern expressed to us by state and local governments." He said, "Civil rights is different than the tax or civil division because of the types of cases."
Another Reagan Justice official characterized the close monitoring of civil rights cases more bluntly: "There are a whole bunch of people down there running the civil rights division with a different philosophy than the one Ronald Reagan campaigned on.
"There are people who are sympathetic to a very, very unbounded conception of where civil rights enforcement leads. We need the review to make sure something isn't smuggled through."
To make sure something wasn't smuggled through in the last days of the Carter administration, Smith agreed to a request by Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) to review school desegregation cases filed against Charleston, S.C.; Yonkers, N.y.; Lima., Ohio, and Marshall, Tex. The president's nominee to head the division, William Bradford Reynolds, will examine the cases after he is confirmed by the Senate, Schmults said.
Drew Days, a Yale Law School professor who was chief of the civil rights division under Carter, says he felt the department's reaction to lobbying on the wording in a voters' rights case in Mobile and on several state prison cases might "invite open season" on the division's caseload.
"The attorney general's courtesies may come back to haunt him," he said. "There's a real issue of independence at stake. The identity of the Justice Department and the attorney general in this administration is pretty fuzzy right now."
Robert J. Reinstein, the section chief who supervised school cases under Days, said he viewed the department's position on the Chicago school case as "the litmus test."
The city school board signed a consent decree last fall to desegregate schools, but has made little progress since to carry out the promise.
Justice Department attorneys thought the city's first plan was too weak, according to Sussman and Douglas R. Marvin, a special assistant to Smith who monitored division cases until last week when he returned to private practice.
So the school board never filed it formally with the court. Its current offering is even weaker in several respects, they said.
"Chicago is doing as little as possible because it doesn't think the department is serious," Reinstein said.
"We should be lobbying Chicago to come up with the best possible plan," Sussman said. "We should ask the court for a hearing to have the school board justify why its plan is so weak."
Sussman, who is joining the NAACP as assistant general counsel, said he also was concerned that the administration's public pronouncements might lead to "self-censorship" by division attorneys who wouldn't aggressively pursue cases.
Before he left office, Carter Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti wrote Smith a memo noting he was prepared to file a desegregation suit against more than 20 surburban school districts around St. Louis, but declined because he felt the suit needed support of the new administration.
Early last month, Justice suggested a voluntary solution to the St. Louis suburbs case, proposing the state pay college tuition of any student who crossed district lines to integrate a predominantly one-race school.
The Missouri attorney general opposed the idea and visited Smith last week to discuss it. The proposed suit has been shelved in the meantime.
Schmults has discussed cases with several state or local politicians, he said. "It would be foolish not to listen to them. They're not always wrong, you know."
Last month, Smith altered a department complaint against the voting laws of Mobile after Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) called to complain about use of the words "white supremacy."
Veteran department attorneys said they never heard of that happening before. Most discounted the legal significance of the change, but some expressed concern about the signal the reversal might send to outside officials.
"The message seemd to be: if you have a problem, just give us a call, we'll take care of it," one division attorney said.
In another prison case, in Texas, Schmults and Smith were lobbied by Republican Gov. William P. Clements and state Attorney General Mark White into seeking a delay in a federal judge's order.
The judge rejected the appeal and Schmults called in his trial attorney and bawled him out for not asking for the delay emthusiastically enough.