Civil Rights Chairwoman No Stranger to Legal Battles

The embattled chairwoman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission is so afraid of losing her power to set the agenda, she has been driven to "criminal" behavior, says the Landmark Legal Foundation, which is challenging another commission member's bid to keep her seat.

Landmark, a public interest law firm based in Virginia, recently sent a letter to the Justice Department asking it to find whether commission member Victoria Wilson is violating federal law by remaining on the panel after her term expired. In the meantime, Landmark President Mark R. Levin is criticizing chairwoman Mary Frances Berry for siding with Wilson and obstructing the installation of President Bush's appointee to the panel, Cleveland lawyer Peter Kirsanow.

Berry refused to seat Kirsanow at a Dec. 7 commission meeting, a day after he was sworn in to replace Wilson whose Nov. 29, 2001 term end is in dispute. Instead, Wilson participated in the meeting while Kirsanow and newly-seated Bush appointee Jennifer Braceras were ignored.

Berry and Wilson claim Wilson's term lasts for another five years and they have the federal statute to back it.

But a Berry critic who works for the commission said Berry's intransigence is just another example of her desire to hang on to her influence over the commission, which Berry runs by a 5-3 margin.

The source, who asked not to be named, said Berry rules with an iron fist that leaves dissidents "shaking in fear" and has cultivated the panel into her "personal fiefdom" over the last 21 years of her tenure there.

Now Berry is defending Wilson in order to prevent the political lines from splitting to a 4-4 margin of Republicans versus Democrats and Independents who vote with them, the source said.

"She's scared. Her power is not so secure right now." 

A source close to Berry, who also asked not to be named, said that Berry's critic in the commission office is "clearly not a supporter of Chairperson Berry and is looking to damage her reputation. Dr. Berry's interest is only in preserving the interests of the commission."

Berry's office and her attorney declined comment.

The latest in a stream of battles

The latest battle Berry has engaged in focuses on Wilson's term of office and interpretation of the commission's rules.

Wilson was appointed by President Clinton in 2000 to complete the term of Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., who died in 1998. His term expired Nov. 29, 2001. When time came for Wilson to give up her seat, she and Berry argued that an amendment to the commission rules made no mention of midterm appointments and therefore any newly appointed member gets six years on the panel.

"Under the Civil Rights Commission Amendment Act of 1994, the language covering terms and membership deleted any reference to unexpired terms and expressly provided that 'the terms of office of each member of the Commission shall be six years,'" said Debra Carr, deputy general counsel for the commission.

The Bush administration sees it differently. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that Wilson's appointment letter states she was to serve only the remainder of Higgenbotham's term. The White House argues that to allow new members to start terms from scratch would enable a president to stack the commission.  If Wilson were to serve out her term, it would defeat the purpose of staggering the terms, provided for in the commission's rules.

"The law is very clear," added White House Spokeswoman Anne Womack. "Victoria Wilson's term expired on Nov. 29, and Peter Kirsanow has been sworn in as her replacement."

The Justice Department has filed suit against Wilson, asking a D.C. Circuit Court judge to rule on her term expiration date. 

A history of dispute

It's not the first time Berry, a registered Democrat, has infuriated Republicans, who say she has used the 41-year-old, $9 million a year commission to advance Democratic issues and candidates.

Berry, who was first appointed by President Carter in 1980, sued the federal government in 1983 when President Reagan attempted to disband the commission. She then helped the Democratic-led Congress enact changes to the law, which in effect secured her position.

President Clinton made Berry chairwoman in 1993.

During the Hillary Clinton-Rudy Giuliani race for the New York Senate seat, the panel released a critical report on police brutality. The commission also released a report criticizing affirmative action practices in Florida during Bush's 2000 election campaign.

The most recent report declared that election practices in Florida were racially discriminatory and resulted in skewed results in the 2000 presidential campaign. She released the study, which was conducted by a former consultant to Al Gore, to the media before allowing Republican members of the panel to review it.

According to attorneys, the final briefs in the case are due to the judge on Jan. 14. Berry has scheduled another commission meeting for Jan 11. The House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution will ask her to postpone the meeting until the case is resolved, a spokesman said.