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Mr. Reagan's civil rights men

President Reagan's three new nominees to guard Americans' civil rights have records of involvement with the subject. By acting in office with the concern and independence they cited this week, they could ease negative impressions left by the circumstances of their appointment to the Civil Rights Commission.

This is the six-member, bipartisan body whose last report before Mr. Reagan's election concluded that ''the lack of enforcement by the executive branch of government, the weakening of good legislation by Congress, and the diminished will and vision on the part of many Americans is discouraging.''

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It is one federal agency that has been relied upon to call things as it sees them. It has tried to do so amid controversy over Mr. Reagan's efforts to fill it with appointees sharing his civil rights views.

The panel criticized the administration for opposing affirmative action in two major cases. It added that such ''active opposition to all but the most limited and ineffectual forms of affirmative action ignores the entrenched nature and pervasive extent of race, sex, and national origin discrimination.''

There was a dissent by Reagan-appointed chairman Clarence Pendleton. But more recently he joined the commission in unanimously voting the extraordinary step of subpoenaing federal information on government hiring practices. Only then did the commission get assurances of cooperation.

Such appearances of reluctance on civil rights enforcement, like Mr. Reagan's foot-dragging on a strong Voting Rights Act extension, have threatened to overshadow his statements against bigotry and violence - which the commission itself has praised.

Now the credentials of the new Reagan appointees threaten to be overshadowed by other matters in Senate confirmation hearings. These include further controversy over purging the panel and substituting supporters of Reagan opposition to such civil rights remedies as affirmative action in hiring and court-ordered busing in school desegregation.

As for credentials, nominee Morris Abram is a former president of Brandeis University who has served on the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Robert Destro, an assistant law professor at Catholic University, has been general counsel for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in Milwaukee. John Bunzel, a senior research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, has made a study of civil rights law.

But the nominees, whatever their qualifications, have been put on the defensive. They assured skeptics that they really were committed to civil rights and would be independent in their judgment. One even said he disagreed with Mr. Reagan on the Equal Rights Amendment. Presidential aides only contributed to skepticism by at first limiting press access to the nominees and then opening it up under pressure.

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In such needless ways Mr. Reagan's own declared commitment to civil rights gets put under a bushel. He has the leadership ability to restore the civil rights ''will and vision'' whose loss discouraged the commission in 1980. A commission that hangs onto its independence can help him do so if he chooses.

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