Parties Make Case in Civil Rights Commission Seat

A judge said Thursday she expects to rule on the rightful member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights before the commission's next meeting Feb. 8.

U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler heard oral arguments Thursday on a pending summary judgment in the case of United States and Kirsanow vs. Wilson.

The suit comes down to whether President Bush has the right to replace commission member Victoria Wilson with conservative black labor lawyer Peter Kirsanow.

Former President Clinton appointed Wilson in January 2000 to fill the vacancy of Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., who died in 1998 in the middle of his term. Bush appointed Kirsanow in November 2001, when Higginbotham's term would have ended. Wilson refused to leave her seat saying that her six-year term began when she took the position in January 2000. The White House and Kirsanow argue that her term ended when Higginbotham's ended in November 2001.

Thursday's arguments focused on Congress' intentions on filling mid-term vacancies on the commission when it revised the commission's operating statutes.

In 1983, Congress included language prescribing mid-term vacancies in an overhaul of the commission to make it a more independent body. In 1994, they overhauled the 40-year-old body again, and omitted the language for mid-term vacancies.

The government maintains that the language for mid-term vacancies was implied in the 1994 overhaul. Wilson said that the language is not there and therefore the law is clear.

Wilson has the support of commission chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, who said Bush's nomination of Kirsanow to replace Wilson was an attempt to muzzle the commission.

The commission investigated voting irregularities in the 2000 presidential election in Florida and issued a report in the fall of 2001 saying minority rights had been violated. The commission plans to question Florida Gov. and Bush brother Jeb Bush this year.

The Bush administration maintains it is merely abiding by the law by filling the vacancy left by the expiration of Wilson's term.