The head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has removed two lawyers from a Louisiana busing case and has required two others to take on the case after the department decided to reverse its position in the controversial matter.
Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds conceded that he had reassigned the two attorneys, Franz Marshall and Sandra Beber, because of their reluctance to argue the opposite position before the same judge they had faced before.
The case involves the East Baton Rouge Parish (county) School District, where court-ordered busing has been in effect since the fall of 1981.
Last December, arguing that whites were fleeing the system, Justice submitted a plan to abandon busing in favor of a voluntary magnet school plan featuring Montessori-type schools in black neighborhoods to attract "liberal and higher-social-class" whites and "fundamental, back-to-basics" schools in white neighborhoods to appeal to "working-class black parents."
Many of the division's lawyers have been highly skeptical of the new proposal, and some say they would be embarrassed to present it to U.S. District Court Judge John B. Parker, a highly respected jurist who has heard the department's arguments in support of mandatory busing since the government entered the case in 1979.
Reynolds said, "What happened is very understandable. We had a team of lawyers on the case that were intimately involved in the litigation when the department proposed the mandatory plan . . . . There was a feeling professionally of some awkwardness of having urged the court to [take] a particular action and then modifying [it]. Professionally, they felt they'd be more comfortable if other people [took over]."
Marshall refused to comment on the reassignment, and Beber could not be reached for comment.
Civil Rights Division sources say that the decision to ask the court to reverse its mandatory busing order was so unpopular that Reynolds had trouble finding any experienced lawyer in the division willing to argue the case. They said that although the political appointees around Reynolds would have been eager to take the case, they generally are inexperienced in trial work.
Department sources say that several of the division's senior lawyers were approached by Reynolds, but refused to take the case. They say that Reynolds then ordered two respected, but less senior lawyers, Brian F. Heffernan and Gregg Meyers, to take the case. Both Heffernan and Meyers refused to discuss the reassignment.
One lawyer familiar with the situation said, "He tried to get some senior people in the general litigation section to take over. They refused. Then he apparently just assigned people. He said, 'Look, you work for me. Here's your assignment.' "
Department sources say Heffernan and Meyers thought their futures at Justice would be jeopardized if they refused, although Reynolds did not threaten to fire them. Reynolds said, "I did not have anybody who said they would refuse. It never got to that stage. I didn't have to direct anybody to do it."
"Generally speaking, I'm sure there would be some people here who would be reluctant to do it," he said. "There was a relatively short period where people who had been doing the laboring on litigation were moved to the background and we were finding new lawyers ."
But the decision to assign Meyers and Heffernan has upset other lawyers who say it violates a department practice of not forcing lawyers to argue positions about which they have serious disagreements. "There's a tradition in the Civil Rights Division--back through the days of the Nixon and Ford administrations--that if a lawyer didn't want to identify his or her name with a case where he disagreed strongly, he didn't have to," said one lawyer. "It looks as if that may be over."
The case dates to 1956, when the school board was first sued by black parents who charged that the school system was unconstitutionally segregated. A federal court agreed, and over the years several attempts were made to integrate the schools. In issuing its busing order in 1981 the court pointed out that none of the previous remedies had worked.
Up to now, the school board has not said whether it will approve the new Justice plan. Lawyers for the black parents are vehemently opposed. One of them, Robert Williams, has said that anyone who proposed such a plan after 25 years of failed attempts at integration would have to be a "stark raving maniac."
Reynolds said that the school board was "receptive to the idea that we continue to pursue our efforts and provide more information."
But department lawyers say the board has major problems with the plan, including the potential costs.
Because of the attention directed toward the case--the department's first attempt to overturn an existing busing order--lawyers say Reynolds would not risk the political embarrassment of losing unless he has the clear support of the school board.