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This Offer Is One He Didn't Refuse

L.A. Police Commission chief jumps at second chance to join Justice Department. Hubbell once held his new post.

January 14, 1998|RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — For Raymond C. Fisher, moving from the presidency of the Los Angeles Police Commission to the Justice Department's No. 3 post is more than just a major relocation. It represents a rare second opportunity.

Thirty years ago, while Fisher was clerking for Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr., he turned down his first chance to join the department as a special assistant to the deputy attorney general.

The offer presented substantial challenges: Inner-city unrest had touched off riots in the nation's urban centers, and opposition to the Vietnam War gripped college campuses. Congress, meanwhile, was finishing work on the landmark Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which dramatically expanded federal crime-fighting powers. All these issues centrally involved Justice.

The offer was tempting, but the timing was wrong for Fisher and his wife, Nancy. With a young son and daughter to raise, "it was time for me to be a real lawyer instead of taking yet another temporary position," Fisher recalled recently from his new office in Washington.

The Stanford law school graduate instead returned home to California, becoming a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Tuttle & Taylor. Later, he was a founding partner of the Los Angeles office of Heller, Ehrman, White & McAuliffe, headquartered in San Francisco.

Fisher stayed in touch with the deputy attorney general who had offered him the Justice post--Warren Christopher, himself a leading Los Angeles lawyer who periodically returned to government service, most recently as secretary of state in President Clinton's first term. The two men again linked up after the infamous 1991 beating of motorist Rodney G. King by Los Angeles police officers, with Christopher leading the citizens group that recommended sweeping reforms of the police department and Fisher serving as the panel's deputy general counsel.

That, in turn, helped pave the way for Fisher's service on the police commission, which he was heading when the Senate in November confirmed his nomination by Clinton to be associate attorney general.

The post--occupied at the start of the administration by Clinton chum Webster L. Hubbell, who resigned and then pleaded guilty to defrauding law partners and clients back home in Little Rock, Ark.,--supervises two of the department's most controversial divisions.

These are antitrust, which is challenging the practices of computer giant Microsoft, and civil rights, where Fisher's fellow Angeleno, Bill Lann Lee, heads the division on an acting basis. Lee's confirmation was blocked by opposition among GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to his support for affirmative action.

Throughout his career, the 58-year-old Fisher has won respect for his ability to build a consensus to resolve a dispute. In discussing Lee, Fisher displayed an interest in pursuing such a effort with the Senate panel.

On the eve of Clinton's announcement naming Lee as acting assistant attorney general, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the Judiciary Committee chairman, made what Fisher heard as "a conciliatory statement" by saying that such a move would be less offensive than a recess appointment, under which Lee could serve a full year without Senate action.

That comment "signaled there may be some room for compromise and understanding as we go forward," Fisher said.

Discussing the larger debate over affirmative action, Fisher made a distinction between "the remedial side of [such programs], where you're dealing with remedies for past discrimination," and other situations where "you . . . want diversity because it's good for everyone."

He recalled community meetings held by the police commission where virtually everyone attending was African American, Latino or Korean. "It was observably helpful to be able to have a minority chief, but [also] minority representation in command officers. . . . They were people who had some sense of and understood what [community members] were talking about where they were coming from in terms of their own life experiences."

On the antitrust front, Fisher draws upon his experience in complex business litigation as well as dealings with Joel Klein, the assistant attorney general for antitrust and the department's sparkplug in the Microsoft suit.

In the early 1970s, the two men were on opposite sides of a legal dispute over Stanford's firing of professor Howard Bruce Franklin for his role in antiwar demonstrations that erupted into violence. Fisher represented the university's case against Franklin, whose firing was upheld, while Klein was one of several lawyers who defended the professor.

"Joel and I go way back in terms of personal relations," Fisher said, adding that he expects to take "a fairly active role in working with him" on antitrust issues.

"It's his division for sure, but in terms of having an interest and background in antitrust, it's something I can at least talk the language and understand," Fisher said.

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