BUSH administration expected to support race preferences in government contracting

Friday, August 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration is expected to defend the use of racial preferences to award some government contracts, a position out of step with campaign rhetoric, when it files its response to a Supreme Court case this week.

The government response is due Friday in an 11-year case that has come to symbolize reverse discrimination.

The Republican Bush administration is expected to adopt the same position in a long-running case as its predecessor, the Democratic Clinton administration, lawyers involved in the case said. To do otherwise would abandon the government's defense in the long-running lawsuit. It would also flout Supreme Court etiquette, which says that new presidents should not switch sides in ongoing cases.

The Clinton administration essentially locked in the government position on Jan. 19, a day before Clinton left office. Clinton's top Supreme Court lawyer filed papers defending the Transportation Department's preferential contracting program as a constitutional way to combat the lingering effects of racial discrimination.

``It would be very disappointing,'' to see the Bush administration embrace affirmative action, even if it did do while holding its nose, said John H. Findley, a lawyer for the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation.

``It certainly would be different from what President Bush said on the campaign trail,'' Findley said. His group backs the white-owned small business at the heart of the case.

As a candidate, President Bush said he opposed racial quotas and would work to end them. Attorney General John Ashcroft has also opposed affirmative action.

The case before the Supreme Court, Adarand Constructors v. Mineta, challenges a Transportation Department program that gives incentives to large government contractors if they hire ``disadvantaged'' smaller firms to do some of the work. In practice, disadvantaged means minority-owned.

This is familiar ground for the court, which used the same dispute to drastically limit the scope of federal affirmative action programs in 1995.

The court's 5-4 ruling then stopped short of killing affirmative action programs but said such aid must be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest.

Adarand originally sued in 1990, claiming that the previous program was unconstitutionally based on race. At issue now is a revised version of the contracting program, which Adarand claimed still gives its competitors unfair advantage.