Civil rights commission row

By NICHOLAS M. HORROCK, UPI Chief White House Correspondent  |  Dec. 6, 2001 at 9:19 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- The White House vowed Thursday that President Bush's appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will be sworn in and will take his place at a commission hearing Friday despite threats by the chairwoman that she will not seat him.

Anne Womack, a White House spokeswoman, said that Cleveland lawyer Peter Kirsanow will be sworn in at the White House by Washington Superior Court Judge Maurice Ross.

This action may set up a confrontation with commission chairwoman Mary Francis Barry who Tuesday said "the only way that she will let this person be seated is if United States Marshals show up and force her to do so," according to a White House account of this growing squabble.

Womack did not comment on whether U.S. marshals would be at the commission meeting, which is set for 9:30 a.m. Friday, in a building near Washington's Capitol Hill.

"We would hope the chairwoman will abide by the law and treat Mr. Kirsanow as the commissioner he will be," Womack said.

According to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, chairwoman Berry, laid down her extraordinary challenge to White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales Tuesday in a telephone conversation.

"She said she would refuse to seat any new people appointed by President Bush in this manner. She said that (of) the appointment the president announced ... she will refuse to swear him in. She further said that the only way that she will let this person be seated is if United States Marshals show up and force her to do so," Fleischer said.

"The White House is going to proceed in a cordial fashion. ... It's not in the public interest for public officials to engage in that type of bellicose language," Fleischer said. "That's not the way to bring people together."

Gonzales wrote Berry, "I respectfully urge you to abandon this confrontational and legally untenable position."

At issue is a seat on the commission of Victoria Wilson, a political independent. Wilson was appointed on Jan. 13, 2000, by President Bill Clinton to fill a seat vacated after the death of Judge A. Leon Higginbotham.

The White House contends that Wilson's appointment, made only a few days before Clinton left office, was to expire on Nov. 29, 2001, the end of the Higginbotham term. Bush announced that he planned to appoint Kirsanow, a Cleveland lawyer and member of the Center for New Black Leadership, a conservative black organization to a six-year term.

Wilson contends, according to Fleischer, that Clinton's appointment was for six years, but White House records of the appointment, he argued, showed that it actually was only to Nov. 29.

"Now, in fairness," he said, "Chairman Berry says that that is not accurate; that at the time the appointment was made ... Commissioner Wilson claims her commissioning documents were wrong and that she alerted the past administration to the error."

But Fleischer said there is no record in White House files that would support Wilson's contention. "There is no record of any or recollection of any contact between Ms. Wilson and the clerk's office on any attempt to correct the record."

Neither Wilson, her lawyer, Leon Friedman, a professor at Hofstra University, nor Berry returned telephone calls from United Press International.

According to Fleischer, the intent of civil rights commission laws was to stagger the appointments. "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 six year terms."

He said that legal office of the Department of Justice has issued a finding that Kirsanow's appointment is in order.

Since 1992, the eight-member panel has been dominated by Democrats, who voted six to two in majority. This gave extraordinary power to chairwoman Berry.

The White House in November announced that it intended to appoint Jennifer Cabranes Braceras to replace Yvonne Lee, whose term expires this month.

If Kirsanow is seated, the eight commissioners will be split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats and end the authority that Berry has enjoyed.

Berry conducted a major investigation into the contested Florida election looking into charges that the president's brother Jeb Bush and other Florida officials deprived black voters of their right to vote. That was not established. Berry who was first appointed by President Jimmy Carter, is know as a feisty and outspoken public official who has warred with more than one administration.

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