Civil Rights Hearing Proceeds Roughly

More salvos in the war between the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the White House were fired Friday, this time with the chairwoman of the body telling President Bush to butt out of her panel's business.

Likening the commission's current struggle over who is entitled to a seat on the panel to black voting rights drives in the Deep South during the 1960's, chairwoman Mary Frances Berry said Bush should take a cue from one of his predecessors.

"We're hoping that the president would do what John F. Kennedy did" by telling the Justice Department to back off, Berry said Friday at the commission's monthly meeting.

At least one commission member characterized the remarks as "ludicrous" if not typical of Berry's rhetoric.

"Similar analogies have been made by the chairwoman, as she talks about the parade of horribles" that surely would follow measures with which she disagrees, said Republican-leaning commission member Abigail Thernstrom. "The discussions never have integrity."

At issue is whether Bush can use his presidential authority to appoint commissioners to the panel, which has no enforcement powers but nonetheless receives $9 million a year to hear civil rights complaints.

In this case, the liberal Berry is fighting the White House over the appointment of Victoria Wilson, who was tapped by former President Clinton in 2000 to finish the late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham's six-year term, which expired Nov. 29, 2001.

Bush has appointed Cleveland labor lawyer Peter Kirsanow to take Wilson's place on the commission, which would tilt the 5-3 Democratic-leaning majority to a 4-4 balance, diminishing Berry's extraordinary influence of the panel.

Berry, who supports Wilson, argues that the current statute offers no guidance on mid-term appointments and therefore Wilson is entitled to a full six years on the panel.

Government attorneys say Berry and Wilson don't have a legal leg to stand on. Both sides submitted arguments to a judge this week, who has been asked to expedite his ruling.

In the meantime, Berry, a 21-year member of the commission and chairwoman since 1993, held court at Friday's commission meeting, using her allies on the panel and parliamentary procedure to prevent any discussion of the dispute, including a motion by commissioner Jennifer Braceras that Kirsanow, who sat quietly in the audience, be considered a "provisional" voting member until the courts decide the matter.

Bush-appointee Braceras was also prevented from questioning the chairwoman's decision to spend –without a commission vote – taxpayer money to hire outside counsel to defend Wilson, bypassing the in-house counsel it already has. 

Berry and staff director Les Jin hired the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison last week to defend Wilson. Legal scholars and some members of Congress have said the commission may be acting unlawfully by taking such action.

But Berry defended the move Friday, saying it's been done "over and over throughout the years."  

In shutting down the discussion with the help of vice chairman Cruz Reynoso, who chided Braceras for not brushing up on parliamentary rules, Berry said commissioners should stop fancying themselves lawyers attempting to hash out the legality of the matter, which "is being litigated in the courts."

Berry then led the vote to affirm her decision to hire outside counsel and to move further discussion off the table.

To that, Braceras, one of four lawyers on the panel, called the move "completely non-responsive to the question."

With discussion over, the commission voted to distribute a press release commending congressional members who urged Bush to reinstate food stamps to legal immigrants as part of welfare reform. Bush announced Wednesday that legal immigrants would be eligible for assistance. They also moved to a discussion of environmental justice for inner cities.