OLYMPIA, Wash. – A former border official who claims his dismissal was influenced by politics is going to federal court this week, claiming that the Bush administration had no authority to fire him.
The White House fired Dennis Schornack, of Williamston, Mich., on July 10 from his position as U.S. representative to the International Boundary Commission. The small U.S-Canadian agency serves as caretaker for the long, undefended border between the two countries.
His abrupt dismissal came after he and the Justice Department began arguing about his legal representation in a lawsuit filed by Washington state property owners. The plaintiffs are trying to stop the commission from tearing down a concrete wall in their backyard, which abuts the Canadian border.
Schornack has resisted his firing. He claims that treaties establishing the border agency allow him to leave office only by resigning, dying or becoming incapacitated.
But in a court filing Friday, the Justice Department called Schornack's assertion "breathtaking."
"Mr. Schornack's strained interpretation of the treaty would lead to the absurd result that a commissioner ... receives lifetime tenure and cannot be removed even for malfeasance," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brian Kipnis and Thomas Woods.
Schornack's lawyer, Elliot Feldman of Washington, D.C., said Sunday night that Schornack's response, due Monday, was not yet complete. But he said it would revolve largely around whether the commission is an agency of the United States, "because if it is not, the Justice Department has no business representing it."
"We think the evidence is overwhelming that it's not an agency of the United States," Feldman said. "It's an international organization."
Established limits on presidential power would also prevent Schornack's firing by the White House, Feldman said.
A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
The underlying lawsuit was brought in April when Herbert and Shirley-Ann Leu of Blaine asked a federal court to stop Schornack and his Canadian counterpart from removing their backyard wall.
The two officials personally ordered the Leus to remove the wall, saying it intruded on a 10-foot border "vista" that must be kept clear of obstructions.
In the Leus' neighborhood, the international boundary is a roadside ditch. They can enter Canada simply by crossing the street.
Conservative property-rights lawyers from the Pacific Legal Foundation have taken up the Leus' case, and Schornack has alleged in court filings that his firing was influenced by politics.
The White House has declined to comment on Schornack's case, citing personnel policy.
Schornack, a lifelong Republican and longtime aide to former Michigan Gov. John Engler, was appointed to the office by Bush in 2002.
Schornack has said he was paid about $135,000 annually in his dual positions on the Boundary Commission and the International Joint Commission, which handles boundary waters disputes. He also has been fired from the Joint Commission posting.