Bill Lann Lee, a civil rights attorney who most recently worked with the NAACP, was appointed Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights by President Clinton in December. Clinton made the appointment during a congressional recess because the Senate did not confirm Lee before its members went home for the December holidays.
Because he was appointed this way, Lee can begin work at the Department of Justice almost immediately, without Senate confirmation. Isabelle Katz Pinzler has served as Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights for nearly a year, since Deval Patrick left the post.
President Clinton calls Lee "the best person for the job"
"From this day forward, he will be the nation's top civil rights enforcer," President Clinton said. "He is truly the best person for this job." Clinton said that he thinks the Senate will confirm Lee once they have had time to see him in the post and can fairly judge his performance.
Lee has been a crusader for civil rights for more than two decades. He has been an advocate for civil rights enforcement, health care accessibility, public transportation equity, fair employment, fair housing, and school desegregation.
Lee has supporters on both sides of the aisle. Republicans like Alfonse D'Amato of New York, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, and General Colin Powell have all thrown their support behind Lee's nomination. Democrats like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer have all been vocal supporters of Lee.
"He certainly has the qualifications for the job," said Gen. Powell.
Rev. Jackson agrees. "Here is a man who has the academic credentials, the experience, and the willingness to enforce the law," he said. Rev. Jackson also praised Clinton's decision to appoint Lee without Senate approval. During an ABC News program, Rev. Jackson compared it to a similar appointment in the Kennedy administration. "It shows President Clinton's courage and character. In fact, years ago there was a similar issue. President Kennedy had to do it to appoint Thurgood Marshall."
Lee's greatest civil rights victories have come in California, while he served as Western Regional Counsel for the NAACP. In 1985, he won a case that provided housing to Los Angeles residents who were displaced by the Century Freeway.
In 1987, he won an employment discrimination case against Lucky Stores, a California-based chain that had allegedly denied jobs and promotions to women and minority employees. In 1991, Lee litigated a case that led to an expansion of California's lead-screening program for low-income children and families.
Lee earns respect from LA mayor during public transportation case
Perhaps Lee's biggest victory came against Los Angeles' Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Lee represented thousands of low-income bus riders who claimed that the MTA was discriminating against them with price hikes. The MTA settled the case by cutting the price of bus passes and placing a freeze on fare increases.
The case against MTA won Lee respect from LA Mayor Riordan, who was on the opposing side of that case. "What makes his work special is that he has represented clients from every background, including poor whites, women, and children suffering from lead poisoning," Riordan said.
Lee is the son of Chinese immigrants who came to America in the 1930s. Lee's father served in the United States Army during World War II. Lee said that his father inspired him to enter civil rights. Lee said that his father loved America despite the almost daily discrimination that he faced.
New York City native promises to enforce all of the nation's laws without "fear or favor"
Lee grew up in New York City. His family owned a laundry near Harlem where he worked as a young man. He graduated from Yale University and earned his law degree at Columbia Law School. In 1974, Lee began his civil rights tenure with the NAACP.
Lee has promised to enforce the nation's civil rights laws on a daily basis. "This position has to do with day-in, day-out enforcement of the law," he said. "I pledge to enforce, without fear or favor, our nation's civil rights laws on behalf of all American people," Lee later added.