Attorney General Edwin Meese III, still smarting over a Senate committee's rejection of a key Justice Department nomination, has criticized civil rights activists as "a very pernicious lobby."
In an interview this week on ABC television's "Good Morning America," Meese lashed out at civil rights groups for their role in defeating the nomination of William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general who heads the department's Civil Rights Division, to be associate attorney general, its No. 3 position.
While citing no group by name, Meese called the defeat a "tragedy" and blamed it on "the fact that some senators caved in to a very pernicious lobby."
Meese refused to explain his comments at a news conference yesterday.
"I think the Brad Reynolds nom- ination is behind us now, so I don't think any comment by me would be helpful at the present time," he said.
Meese also avoided questions on other recent controversies, in- cluding the Justice Department's reasons for dropping a 32-month labor fraud investigation of Teamsters union President Jackie Presser.
Meese would not even acknowledge that there had been an investigation, saying, "We have a habit of not commenting on investigations . . . . I would only lead you to what's already been printed in the news media."
Meese was a leader of a short-lived administration effort to resurrect the Reynolds nomination in the Senate last month.
A 10-to-8 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 27 had killed the Reynolds promotion, with two committee Republicans joining all eight Democrats in opposition.
Most of these senators said they opposed Reynolds on grounds that he had failed to vigorously enforce the civil rights laws and had repeatedly misled the panel in sworn testimony.
In the ABC interview, Meese disputed the meaning of the vote.
"In no way was it a repudiation of the civil rights record of this administration," he said. "Our civil rights record is second to none."
Reaction was swift. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), who voted against Reynolds, said, "The attorney general is right in saying that Brad Reynolds' defeat was brought about by the civil rights lobby. But he is wrong in calling it 'pernicious' to do an extraordinary job of research and presentation which so well illuminated the record."
Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, called Meese's comments "Orwellian in their inaccuracy. He ignores the fact that a bipartisan majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee, after exhaustive hearings and deliberations, voted against the confirmation of Mr. Reynolds."
Neas said Meese's descriptions of civil rights activists "do not deserve the dignity of a response."
Frank Parker, who fought Reynolds' nomination as a member of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said, "It wasn't a matter of anyone caving in to a lobby. It was a matter of the senators becoming deeply con- cerned about what they were hearing -- the contradictions in Reynolds' testimony and the policies he followed."
Parker, now with the Joint Center for Political Studies, said civil rights activists "are not . . . try- ing to get something for ourselves. It's not as if we are trying to get tax benefits for a large corpora- tion or legislative favors. We're representing groups of people who have historically been disenfranchised."
This is not the first time Meese has described his critics in pejorative terms. He once called the American Civil Liberties Union a "criminals' lobby."
Meese appeared to be joining an administration effort to dismiss the vote against Reynolds as politically motivated and to criticize the civil rights movement while seeking out new black leaders.
President Reagan has accused Reynolds' opponents of conducting "an ideological assault" on the nominee; Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) blamed the defeat on a group of "bug-eyed zealots," and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) charged Reynolds' opponents with "character assassination."
Conservatives have also tried to pin the vote on opposition to the administration's refusal to use racial quotas.
But critics said the battle was not about quotas but about Reynolds' weak enforcement record against discrimination in housing, employment and voting.