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Los Angeles Times Interview : Deval Patrick : The Justice Department's Leading Civil Rights Advocate

October 16, 1994|GAYLE POLLARD TERRY | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times, based in Washington

WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration is bullish on civil rights. This Justice Department aggressively champions voting rights in several oddly shaped congressional districts, which sent black members to the most integrated Congress in the nation's history. The U. S. Supreme Court is likely to take up challenges to the alleged racial gerrymandering in North Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Georgia. In this battle, the President sides with minorities. Unlike his predecessors, Clinton wants the districts to remain intact "to ensure that the Constitution has meaning for minority voters." His advocacy proves that civil rights is a priority for this Administration.

In an even more formal reversal of the racial policies advocated by the Reagan and Bush Administrations, the Clinton Justice Department is arguing in favor of an appeal in a New Jersey affirmative action case supporting the right of a school district to retain a black teacher while firing an equally qualified white with identical seniority. The Bush Administration supported the white teacher, and won the case in the lower courts. The Clinton Justice Department switched sides, and will argue on behalf of the local school board, which had a voluntary affirmative action plan and chose to consider race when downsizing.

Clinton's tough point man on civil-rights is Deval L. Patrick, now ensconced in the spacious office that once belonged to J. Edgar Hoover. Racial discrimination is not theoretical to Patrick, 38, who grew up in a poor, black neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Scholarships allowed him to prep at Milton Academy, and complete undergraduate and law studies at Harvard University. After graduation, he worked briefly in Los Angeles, while clerking for Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt, then for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a rite of passage for many civil-rights lawyers, before joining a prestigious Boston law firm.

Patrick wasn't Clinton's first choice for the job of assistant attorney general for civil rights, which leads the federal fight against discrimination in housing, schools, lending, jobs and at the voting booth. That honor went to C. Lani Guinier, a law professor whose nomination was torpedoed by conservative challenges to her writings. After that political debacle and a long delay, Patrick got the nod for the important sub-Cabinet post, one of six Justice Department divisions, which employs 500 lawyers and staff, has an annual budget of $55 million and argues roughly 300 court cases annually. Patrick, who plans to use his job as a bully pulpit, lives with his wife, Diane, a labor and employment attorney, and their two daughters in Washington.


Question: What's at stake in the redistricting cases in Georgia, Texas, North Carolina and Louisiana?

Answer: The two most important things to remember and appreciate about those cases are: . . . . One, the notion that these districts are bizarre shapes makes no sense when you take a look at congressional districts across the country and realize that there is no such thing as a regular or normal shape. The other is the misnomer that these are districts where voters are segregated by race, when, in fact, they are the most integrated congressional districts in the country and are responsible for the most integrated Congress in history.

What's at stake is the ability of voters in places where the politics are already racially polarized to be able to participate meaningfully in the process and elect candidates of their choice--which is a right under the Voting Rights Act. If that concept is limited by a decision of the Supreme Court in the upcoming cases that does not take account of those real circumstances and those real challenges and the history of the jurisdictions where these districts have been used, then we will have lost a lot of ground.

Q: Why isn't this gerrymandering?

A: The way you ask the question indicates the common view gerrymandering is bad. Gerrymandering is traditional. Gerrymandering is done for a whole variety of reasons--some of which the court has said are explicitly appropriate. First of all, district lines have to be drawn for congressional races. The Constitution and federal law requires congressional districts for congressional races. And, the district lines are often drawn to protect incumbents or because of geography, because the river goes in a certain way, or because the neighborhoods are different communities of interest, and a whole variety of factors. Race, by the way, is also a traditional consideration . . . . It has not always been used in ways that benefited or respected the strength of the minority vote.

Q: Why are these cases so important 30 years after the Voting Rights Act passed? Why is progress taking so long?

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