THE ATTORNEY general complained in a New York speech last week that he was not getting a fair break from the press when it comes to coverage of the administration's enforcement of the civil rights laws. The Justice Department is enforcing these laws "as vigorously as any administration ever has," said Mr. Smith, and he filled the speech with statistics to make his case.

Most civil rights groups that have criticized the Reagan Justice Department are less concerned with data on new suits brought. They object to what they see as a lack of commitment, a reversal of earlier gains and the administration's decision to oppose busing and hiring quotas. They also choose to define the issue in broader terms than the attorney general might, putting such issues as budget cuts, legal services and tuition tax credits into the civil rights category. This aside, the numbers used by the attorney general are worth examining.

He is proud of the fact that this administration has authorized the filing of three new school desegregation suits--only one of which has actually been filed--during the 30 months it has been in office. This, he says, is one more than the Carter administration undertook during the comparable time period. The last Democratic Justice Department did initiate nine school suits in four years, but four of these were filed within weeks of its leaving office. It may appear that not many suits were filed by either administration, but it should be remembered that most school systems in this country have been desegregated for some time. The attorney general did not discuss the fact that his department changed sides or altered earlier government positions in some school cases that had been filed before 1981.

In the area of criminal cases brought against civil rights violators, the administration's record is good. One hundred and nine of these cases have been initiated in 30 months, and four more have been authorized, which is better than any other administration. A comparable figure for the first 21/2 years of the Carter administration would be 101. But while statistics on voting rights matters appear good--165 redistricting plans have been rejected and the department has "taken part in" 49 court cases protecting voters' rights--it is really impossible to compare this performance with that of any other administration for two reasons: 1) any administration in office when the decennial census data is released will have an unusually high number of cases--this administration had to review 21,000 election-law changes-- simply because all political boundaries are redrawn at that time; and 2) in 1975 the Voting Rights Act was amended to cover four additional states and parts of six others. Of this group, the state of Texas alone accounted for a large proportion of the new cases.

It is true that 20 new public employment cases have been brought since 1981--the exact number brought in a comparable period in the Carter years --but it is the objective of these suits, individual relief and guaranteed access to an applicant pool rather than guaranteed jobs for minorities, that troubles civil rights groups. And while it is commendable that this administration has obtained the largest money settlement in history, in a Fairfax County discrimination case, where is the notation that this suit was brought by the previous administration? As for housing discrimination cases, one can only look at the attorney general's figures and ask "Compared to what?". Sure, the department initiated six new cases and participated in three more. But previous administrations had averaged 29 new cases brought each year.

Statistics are useful devices, but they must be evaluated carefully and in context. The attorney general has not distorted the figures he cited, but readers should keep in mind the comparisons he did not make, the changed circumstances that make comparison in education and voting rights cases difficult, and the policy changes that are the real bone of contention between the department and civil rights groups.