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Top U.S. Civil Rights Prosecutor Resigns

Law enforcement: Deval Patrick is leaving Justice Department. He hints administration may challenge California's Prop. 209 in court.

November 15, 1996|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department's top civil rights enforcer announced his resignation Thursday, urging the nation to remain vigilant against discrimination and indicating that Washington may soon challenge the constitutionality of California's new anti-affirmative-action law.

Deval L. Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights, is leaving to return to his family in Boston and to practice law--a decision that his boss, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, said she "regretted as much as she admired."

His three-year Justice Department tenure was noteworthy for his fights against a GOP-led Congress that wanted to change the nation's affirmative action programs, as well as his work to open two military schools in the South to women and to investigate a rash of arson fires at black churches.

On the matter of California's Proposition 209, which was passed last week and would end state and local government affirmative action programs for women and minorities, Patrick said that his civil rights division is closely monitoring the situation. Hinting that Washington might join in helping to strike it down, he said that he was encouraged by lawsuits filed after the election that would test the initiative's constitutionality.

"Those cases certainly seem on point with the issue at stake in California," he said. "Whether the federal government should or should not intervene at this point is a multidimensional, multifaceted decision and there are going to be a lot of people contributing to the discussion. That decision is not mine alone."

But, he added: "I am confident that in California that issue has not been laid to rest yet."

Without committing himself on how the federal government would use its muscle to oppose the initiative, Patrick said that Washington would either join in one of the current lawsuits or initiate its own legal action. He said that the federal government is "absolutely" looking into how the measure would be applied.

"That is important," he said, noting that he is keenly interested in how federal affirmative action goals would be affected in California.

"We do want to make sure that the federal contracting and other federal conditions that exist in California continue to be respected, notwithstanding the California Civil Rights Initative," he said.

He cited UCLA as the 14th largest federal contractor in the nation. "Large federal contractors are required under federal law to have an affirmative action plan for employment and to make good-faith efforts toward achieving that plan," he said. "That obligation does not change as a result of the initiative having passed."

Gov. Pete Wilson is one of Proposition 209's leading advocates, and his office said Thursday that Washington should stay out of the legal battle over the initiative.

"The people of California have spoken overwhelmingly to put an end to unfair race- and gender-based preferences and discrimination," said Sean Walsh, Wilson's press secretary. "It would be a shame to have the federal government use California tax dollars to fight the people's will in court."

Patrick, a black who was raised in a segregated Chicago housing project and went on to Harvard Law School, stepped into the top civil rights post at a time when sentiment in the country appeared to be turning against affirmative action and immigration and when civilian militias and white extremist groups were growing.

He helped set up the church arson fires task force, and his work uncovering discrimination in lending practices led to record loans for minority borrowers.

On Thursday morning, along with his resignation, Patrick also announced that his civil rights division had obtained a record settlement of $1.3 million in a major housing-discrimination case in Florida.

Times staff writer Bettina Boxall in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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