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Progress on Civil Rights Actions is Seen with Patrick’s Nomination

President Clinton’s nomination of Deval Patrick to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department has Jewish groups hopeful that the administration’s focus on civil rights issues will now grow sharper.

Jewish organizations, which breathed a collective sigh of relief after Patrick’s nomination on Feb. 1, welcomed him as an intelligent and capable candidate likely to make strides in improving race relations and in other civil rights matters.

And after a year during which the top post at the civil rights division remained vacant, Jewish groups were pleased that Clinton had finally chosen someone to lead the fight against bigotry and hatred.

“There is now a sense of relief that we can get on with the business of the day at the civil rights division,” said Michael Lieberman, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office.

Jewish groups hope that Patrick will provide strong leadership for the civil rights division on several matters, including an investigation of the riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and religious rights cases.

Clinton entered office amid expectations that his policies on personal rights issues, such as abortion and school prayer, would be markedly different from his predecessor.

Most Jewish groups eagerly anticipated this change, which they hoped would extend to the civil rights arena.

Clinton’s expected approach promised to strengthen federal civil rights laws, which many Jewish groups thought were weakened under the Reagan and Bush administrations.

“There was a conscientious downgrading of civil rights issues in the last 12 years,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

GROUPS HOPE FOR ACTION

Richard Foltin, legal counsel for the American Jewish Committee, called the previous 12 years a period in which civil rights laws were narrowed, thus making it more difficult for victims of discrimination to prove their cases in court.

But despite the prospect that Clinton would advocate for broad application of the civil rights laws, the post responsible for that duty remained unfilled.

Clinton appointed Lani Guinier, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, to the position last year, but later withdrew her nomination following controversy about some of her writings. Some Jewish groups expressed concern over Guinier’s nomination and welcomed her withdrawal.

Following Guinier’s withdrawal, there was a sense of disappointment that the position had not been filled “but not a detection of abandonment” of Clinton’s civil rights policy, Saperstein said.

Now, with a nominee who is expected to be confirmed, Jewish groups hope for action on a variety of fronts, including the prosecution of those suspected of participating in the Crown Heights riots.

“It is most important (for the civil rights division) to raise civil rights issues to a higher level,” Saperstein said, and Foltin agreed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Patrick’s appointment by voice vote last Thursday. The matter was expected to come before the full Senate sometime next week.

In his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 10, Patrick emphasized the need for the civil rights division to combat bigotry.

“I hope to use what’s been described to me as the bully pulpit of this post, if I am confirmed, to speak out as unequivocally as humanly possible to bigotry, wherever it comes from,” Patrick said at the hearing.

These comments “make civil rights a matter of general concern to all rather than a special concern” applicable only to those affected by hate crimes, said Marc Stern, co-director of legal affairs for the American Jewish Congress.

A POTENTIAL ROLE IN CROWN HEIGHTS INQUIRY

Patrick, a Boston civil rights attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School, previously worked for the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

His potential involvement in the Justice Department investigation of the Crown Heights riots is of particular interest to Jewish groups.

Lieberman said the division will likely get involved in the investigation into the death of Yankel Rosenbaum during the 1991 riots.

Last January, Attorney General Janet Reno said the Justice Department would empanel a federal grand jury to investigate Rosenbaum’s death.

Jewish groups welcomed the move but said the investigation should also focus on the riots themselves.

Abba Cohen, Washington representative of Agudath Israel, called the investigation a top priority matter that he has urged the Justice Department to address since the riots.

“I hope that Patrick will continue to conduct a serious investigation and keep the Crown Heights case in the national spotlight,” he said.

At the confirmation hearing, Patrick was questioned about his views on voting rights laws, which Jewish advocates agree is significant.

According to Lieberman, the federal Voting Rights Act, as originally enacted, made obstacles to voting, such as literacy tests, illegal. But critics charge that such laws have been too broadly applied, resulting in legislative districts drawn so as to ensure minority representation.

Lieberman said voting rights laws are meant to guarantee minorities the opportunity to vote but do not guarantee proportional representation.

Patrick, asked at the hearing about the issue of race in redistricting plans, deferred to the Supreme Court, which he said allows race to be a factor in redistricting, but not the sole factor.

Foltin said that if Patrick is confirmed, he will be called upon to assess the reach and application of the Voting Rights Act.

And while acknowledging that the Jewish community “might not agree with him all the time,” Foltin said he is confident that Patrick “will be capable and conscientious in thinking about these issues.”

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