ROSEMONT, Ill. — Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh told a civil rights group Tuesday that the Bush Administration would not back efforts in Congress to reverse recent Supreme Court rulings that critics contend have crippled affirmative action programs and other minority protections.
Speaking to the annual convention of Operation PUSH in this Chicago suburb, Thornburgh said the controversial decisions appear to be largely technical in nature and narrowly drawn and should not have a wide-ranging impact on efforts to promote equal employment opportunities.
But Thornburgh vowed to monitor the impact of the decisions and support legislation to overturn them in the future if they are found to aggravate discrimination. "If they appear to hamper effective civil rights enforcement, we must suggest the legislative and executive actions required to resolve inequities," he said.
Assault on Hate Crimes
At the same time, Thornburgh announced his support for legislation pending in Congress that would begin a federal assault on so-called hate crimes. As a first step toward outlawing such activity, the measure would require a statistical analysis of the number of crimes whose motive could be attributed to the race, religion, sexual preference or ethnic background of the victim.
"Anyone who thinks they might get away with these cruel and cowardly acts designed to strike fear in the hearts of vulnerable groups or individuals in this country can think again," Thornburgh said.
His comments on the court decisions echoed those made by President Bush at a Washington press conference earlier in the day during which he also called for a constitutional amendment to outlaw the desecration of the American flag. Bush said that legal advisers had assured him the court rulings did not jeopardize civil rights advances and that legislation to dilute their impact was "unnecessary."
The Administration assessment was hotly disputed by several speakers at the PUSH gathering who claimed that a "wait and see" attitude could have a chilling effect on efforts to promote minority hiring and advancement.
Over the last several months, the high court has struck down programs that earmark a portion of local public works contracts for minority contractors, has granted white males the right to challenge court-approved affirmative action plans and has toughened legal standards for prevailing in job discrimination suits.
"What we're talking about is a total, all-out thrust to set civil rights on its head," said the Rev. Otis Moss, the chairman of PUSH, a Chicago-based organization founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Nancy Kreiter, president of Women Employed, a group that presses job discrimination lawsuits in the Chicago area, challenged the Administration "to express the same reverence for equal employment opportunities" as it did for the American flag.
Jackson, a former Democratic presidential contender, also called for legislative action to reverse the court. At the same time, however, he sought to soft-pedal criticism of Thornburgh, a Republican with whom he has forged an unusual alliance.
But Jackson had only tepid praise for William Lucas, a Michigan Republican who is Thornburgh's controversial choice to head the Justice Department's civil rights division.