WASHINGTON – President Bush's new appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights got the cold shoulder at Friday's regular meeting, arriving on time and trying to cast votes but being ignored by the commission's chairwoman and four other Democratic members.
Cleveland labor lawyer and member of the Center for New Black Leadership Peter Kirsanow attempted to cast votes for about the first 10 minutes of the session, but eventually gave up and sat silent while his three commission members tried to have him seated. They were consistently voted down.
Republican commissioners at first tried to adjourn the meeting until chairwoman Mary Francis Berry seated Kirsanow, but Berry persuaded her allies to reject that effort, saying that the dispute -- which she is taking to the courtroom -- could last indefinitely.
Berry, however, did not fulfill her threat to call in federal marshals to remove Kirsanow, sworn in by a District judge Thursday night to replace Victoria Wilson, whose term the White House says expired Nov. 29.
Berry -- a frequent critic of the 2000 elections and particularly of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, younger brother of the president -- presides over a panel on which six commissioners lean Democratic and two lean Republican.
She has sided with Wilson, who says that her 2000 appointment by President Clinton was for a six-year term, not an appointment to complete the term of Judge A. Leon Higgenbotham, Jr., who died in 1998.
The White House disagrees. Spokesman Ari Fleischer said there was no legal merit to Berry's claim that Wilson's term has not expired, noting a ruling by the Justice Department's legal counsel and Clinton administration records that spell out the expiration date.
She argued the documents are wrong and are trumped by federal law, which says new commissioners will fill a six-year term.
Democratic Reps. John Conyers of Michigan and Jerrold Nadler of New York wrote Berry on Thursday to say the law as amended in 1994 reflects her interpretation.
She said accepting the White House or Justice Department interpretation of the law on the commission's makeup "would threaten the very independence of the commission."
The dispute between the Republican White House and a prominent black civil rights leader surprised the Bush team. It's also not the first time that Berry has been at odds with the White House. At the meeting, she recounted how she won her court case to get back on the board after President Reagan tried to get rid of her in 1983.
Fleischer denied rough politics on the White House's part, saying Kirsano was installed within the letter of the law.
The commission received a letter from the Justice Department late Thursday informing Berry that she is not allowed to retain outside legal help without Attorney General John Ashcroft's permission. Berry rejected that opinion.
The White House has already announced it plans to appoint Jennifer Cabranes Braceras to replace Yvonne Lee, whose term is expiring in early December. If Kirsanow is seated, the commission would be split 4-4. The White House has already announced it plans to appoint Jennifer Cabranes Braceras to replace Yvonne Lee, whose term is expiring in early December. If Kirsanow is seated, the commission would be split 4-4, effectively reducing Berry's power.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.