Civil Rights Commission Meeting Heading for Circus Tent

Administration officials are trying to avoid a three-ring circus at Friday's regularly-scheduled meeting of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, but they may have little luck since the committee's chairwoman has taken the role of ringmaster.

President Bush's appointee to the commission was sworn in at the White House Thursday night and planned to attend the commission's regularly scheduled meeting, but commission chairwoman Mary Frances Berry said the administration will have to send in U.S. marshals to seat Peter Kirsanow, a Cleveland lawyer and member of the largely conservative Center for New Black Leadership.

Berry's threats brought howls from White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who said that's exactly the wrong approach for a civil rights commissioner to take.

"She said that she would refuse to seat any new people appointed by President Bush in this manner. She said the appointment the president announced yesterday, she said she will refuse to appoint him. She said she will refuse to swear him in. She said that the law says that she, a Clinton appointee, gets a new six years. She further said that the only way that she will let this person be seated is if the United States marshals show up and force her to do so," Fleischer said.

The dispute arose over the expiration of the term of Victoria Wilson, an independent commission member who was tapped by President Clinton in January 2000 to complete the term of Judge A. Leon Higgenbotham, Jr., who died in 1998.

Berry, who has a frequent ally in Wilson, is demanding that she be allowed to complete the commission's six-year term, rather than finish up Higgenbotham's term, which expired Nov. 29. Berry and Wilson argue that federal statutes say new commissioners will fill a six-year term.

"The 1994 statute says that if there is a vacancy the term of any new member is six years — period," said Leon Friedman, attorney for Wilson and a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University. He said the statute was amended in 1994 to simplify it.

But Gonzales said in his letter that Wilson's appointment specifically stated her commission would expire Nov. 29, 2001. He said there is no official record of any efforts by Wilson to contact the White House clerk and amend her appointment to a six-year commission term.

Fleischer added that appointing Wilson to serve a six-year term is contrary to the commission's rules that require a staggering of terms.

"Otherwise, if you could have people step down and then appoint new people to a new six-year term, you could game the Civil Rights Commission so that a president could appoint six people of his own choosing to serve new six-year terms. And that is not the way the Civil Rights Commission was set up," he said.

But Berry, who knows that Kirsanow will temper her authority, remained defiant. She said the dispute is "about the independence and integrity of the commission. It's a unique agency — a watchdog over the enforcement of civil rights, by the president, the Justice Department and all federal agencies."

Gonzales said her refusal to seat Kirsanow at the next commission meeting would "violate the law." 

The White House announced Kirsanow's appointment late Wednesday.  Thursday night, a District of Columbia judge swore him in while Gonzales looked on.

The commission is currently split 6-2 between commissioners who lean Democratic and lean Republican. The White House last month announced it intends to appoint Jennifer Cabranes Braceras to replace Yvonne Lee, whose term expires in early December. The Kirsanow appointment would split the commission 4-4 along largely partisan lines and would likely hinder Berry's ability to take actions with the backing of a majority of the commission.

In her work for the commission, Berry has criticized every president since Jimmy Carter, who appointed her and later got pressure from her over the levels of financial aid for the poor. President Reagan fired her but had to reinstate her after a lawsuit. Former Presidents Bush and Clinton haven't been spared.

"You went so far as to state that it would require the presence of federal marshals to seat him," Gonzales said in his letter, referring to Kirsanow. "I respectfully urge you to abandon this confrontational and legally untenable position."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.