The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights accused the Justice Department yesterday of giving way to prejudice and political pressure, and simply disregarding the law in civil rights enforcement.
NAACP president Benjamin Hooks, chairman of the conference, said, "Civil and human rights occupy a low rung on the totem pole of this administration's concerns . . . . I have a chill run across me as I look at a systematic, pervasive attack on civil rights . We're having to fight all over again not to secure new rights, but to hold on to the ones we have gained."
Hooks made his comments as his group released a 75-page report--"Without Justice"--on the Justice Department's civil rights record. The conference is a coalition of 163 civil rights, labor and religious groups.
The report found the department has "cooperated in the corruption of the legal process by allowing its decisions to be shaped by appeals from politicians not based on law . . . . At the Justice Department in 1982 . . . basic qualities of fairmindedness and fidelity to law are lacking. Instead, power and prejudice hold sway."
The report described instances in which Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Jeremiah Denton, (R-Ala.), Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and former White House aide Lyn Nofziger successfully urged the department to change positions.
Hooks said Attorney General William French Smith and William Bradford Reynolds, head of the civil rights division, have taken actions which place them "in conflict with the Constitution and the courts."
"The Justice Department has become the locus, the focus of anti-civil rights activity in this administration," he said.
William Taylor, attorney for the conference and principal author of the report, said the department is guilty of "massive disrespect for our Constitution and legal system by people who are sworn to uphold and enforce the law."
John Wilson, a Justice Department spokesman, refused comment, saying he had not seen the report.
Reynolds, in a speech earlier this week to the Delaware Bar Association, defended the department's record and said the administration has been criticized because it "dared to reexamine some of the relief that has come to be 'accepted practice' in the civil rights community.
"While we share fully the desired end, we are questioning--and I submit, for good reason--some of the means that have been employed in the past to get there." He said, for example, the administration does not approve of forced school busing for integration or of racial quotas.
The report said the Justice Department had "sought to undermine confidence in the judiciary by launching a sweeping attack on the federal courts for performing their constitutional role of protecting the rights of minorities from intrusion of majority will."
It also criticized the department for switching sides in several cases pending before the Supreme Court, and for announcing plans to try to overturn other court decisions.