Congressional Researchers: Attempt to Unseat Bush Civil Rights Commission Appointee Won't Stand in Court

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' argument against seating a new commissioner named by President Bush probably wouldn't withstand a court challenge, congressional researchers say.

At issue is a seat held by commissioner Victoria Wilson, who was appointed by President Clinton after the death of Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. Clinton noted in the appointment certificate that Wilson's term would expire when Higginbotham's would have, on Nov. 29, 2001.

Earlier this month, Bush appointed Cleveland labor lawyer Peter N. Kirsanow to a six-year term. Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry objected vehemently to the appointment, saying federal law stipulates that Wilson, like all commissioners, was entitled to a six-year term. The commission refused to seat Kirsanow at its Dec. 7 meeting.

In a Dec. 14 memo to the House subcommittee on the Constitution, the Congressional Research Service said the civil rights panel's maneuver runs counter to Congress' intent when it reauthorized the commission in 1994. It said Congress meant for commission members to serve staggered terms so that no one president can stack the panel with appointees.

Allowing Wilson to remain for a full six years means her term "would expire closer to, and perhaps coincide with, the set of four other expirations," said the memo, obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

"More than half of the offices ultimately coming due in one year or in relatively close proximity would substantially defeat the purpose of the structural scheme to regularize the period of time for which commissioners serve," the memo said.

It concluded that a reviewing court is likely to hold that the 1994 reauthorization did not undo the staggered term requirement, "and that Mr. Kirsanow is entitled to the vacant position on the commission."

Julia Tarver, an attorney for the civil rights panel, declined to comment on the dispute itself, saying it is pending before the District of Columbia Superior Court. As for the memo, she said, "I don't think it's appropriate for anybody to comment about how a court would rule in this case."

The civil rights commission was established in 1957 by then-President Eisenhower to monitor civil rights. The panel has no enforcement power and an annual budget of about $9 million for investigating civil rights complaints and publicizing its findings.

The commission sharply criticized the conduct of the 2000 election in Florida as well as the state's governor, Jeb Bush, younger brother of the president.