WASHINGTON – George W. Bush’s railroading of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission (CRC) was blocked Dec. 7 when Commission Chair Mary Frances Berry stood her ground and refused to recognize Bush’s nominee.
A federal judge had “sworn in” Peter Kirsanow at the White House to take the seat now held by Victoria Wilson. She had been appointed in January 2000 to the seat left vacant by the death of Judge Leon Higginbotham, whose term was to expire Nov. 29, 2001.
The Bush administration claimed that Wilson’s term ended on that date, but Berry refuted that, citing a bill passed by Congress proving that Wilson is entitled to a full six-year term and therefore no vacancy exists. The CRC is a small agency with no enforcement powers but the mandate to investigate violations of civil rights.
Several times during the hearing, Kirsanow, sitting in the front row of the packed hearing room, tried to speak or cast a vote. Berry hammered her gavel and ruled him out of order. The current eight-member commission is divided 5 to 3, with three Democrats and two independents constituting the majority. It was this majority that convened hearings in Florida after the 2000 presidential election and wrote a devastating report exposing the Bush campaign’s brazen violations of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in disenfranchising tens of thousands of Black and Latino voters.
The CRC, and specifically Berry, has been a thorn in Bush’s side. But if Wilson, an independent, had been replaced by Kirsanow, it would have produced a 4 to 4 split, paralyzing the agency that even now is exposing the racial profiling of Arab Americans and Asians in the current “war on terrorism.”
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich), ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), also a Judiciary Committee member, wrote a letter to the CRC, stating, “While the current administration may be unhappy with the exhaustive documentation provided by the commission of widespread civil rights and voting rights violations in the 2000 presidential election, this appears to be a bald attempt to cut short the term of a member, thereby giving the president the ability to appoint a more ‘friendly’ commissioner who would deadlock the commission’s work and neutralize it as an independent voice for civil rights.”
Lawyers for both sides are now to meet in an attempt to resolve whether or not a vacancy exists. The case is expected to end up in court.