THE NEWLY formed Citizens Commission on Civil Rights has just issued its first report on congressional efforts to limit school busing. The commission is a private, bipartisan organization formed last July to counteract what its members view as harmful actions taken by Congress and the Reagan administration to diminish the civil rights of Americans. All 15 members of the group were formerly high federal officials in areas involving civil rights enforcement.
In a document titled "There Is No Liberty," the citizens' commission assails the Johnston-Helms amendment to the Justice Department authorization bill that passed the Senate last winter but has been stalled in the House Judiciary Committee, where, with any luck, it will die during the lame- duck session. The concept of limiting court remedies in desegregation cases, as this amendment purports to do, has been with us for some time, and shows no signs of disappearing with the new Congress. A scholarly and comprehensive analysis of its dangers will be needed for the foreseeable future, and that is just what the commission has given us.
Legal scholars are just about unanimous in agreeing that legislation designed to take away the Supreme Court's jurisdiction in constitutional cases would not withstand the test of court review. Even Attorney General William French Smith agrees, for example, that Congress may not legislate "in a manner that intrudes upon the core functions of the Supreme Court as an independent and equal branch in our system of separation of powers," But the attorney general believes that it is constitutional for Congress to enact laws, such as the Johnston-Helms amendment, that set limits on the remedies that courts can order in these cases. The citizens' commission disagrees, and gives us a strong legal brief backing up its argument. But whether or not it's constitutional, the Johnston-Helms amendment is simply bad policy. Its worst feature is a provision authorizing the Justice Department to go to court, on the complaint of a single individual, to reopen old school desegregation cases long thought settled. The commission's brief provides evidence of successful desegregation plans involving transportation, all of which would be disturbed if not destroyed, if this deplorable legislation were to be enacted.
President Reagan has decided to replace all the members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent agency of the federal government whose members usually serve from one administration to another. We cannot expect to hear from the newly constituted government agency the kind of bipartisan prodding and criticism of Congress and the administration that we had come to expect from that body. The views of the 15 private individuals who have formed the new Citizens Commission on Civil Rights will, therefore, be all the more welcome as a contribution to this national debate.