Tags: Clinton | Judge | Blocks | Bush's | Civil | Rights | Appointee

Clinton Judge Blocks Bush's Civil Rights Appointee

Monday, 04 February 2002 12:00 AM

The government said it would appeal.

The ruling came in a showdown between the White House and the commission’s controversial, partisan chairman, avid Al Gore supporter Mary Frances Berry, who has denied the right of Bush appointee Cleveland attorney Peter Kirsanow to sit on the panel.

Although, on the face of it, the case revolves around a technical issue about the language used in the commission’s 1994 reauthorization, the real struggle is over control of the panel. Under Berry's tenure, the panel has drawn criticism for its partisan report on the Florida presidential vote, among other issues.

Attorneys for Berry, the commission and the U.S. government met in federal court after the Justice Department filed suit against Commissioner Victoria Wilson for failing to relinquish her seat, which has expired.

Wilson herself was appointed last January by Clinton to fill a seat left empty by the death of Judge A. Leon Higginbotham.

Before 1994, the law governing the commission explicitly stated that its members should serve "staggered” six-year terms, i.e. a member appointed to take another member’s place after five years would serve for only one more year, the remainder of the replaced member’s term. But in 1994, when Congress reauthorized the commission, the language about staggered terms was not included in the statute, though it included no contradictory provisions either.

The White House noted that Higginbotham's term ended Nov. 29, 2001, and Wilson's appointment was good only until then. But Berry and other pro-Democrat commission members claimed that the 1994 law meant everyone appointed to the commission, for whatever reason, has a six-year term.

U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler said Monday that the "facts are virtually undisputed." She said that that if Congress believed that staggering the terms of the commission members was necessary, lawmakers would have included it in "expressed language" absent from the 1994 statute.

Kessler said the 1994 statute required that all commissioners serve six-year terms, regardless of whether they are replacing a member whose term has expired, or whether they are taking the seat of someone who died or left office early for some other reason.

As a result of her defiance in refusing to seat Bush’s appointee, Berry has faced congressional threats that she could be fired or prosecuted.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, chairman of the House subcommittee charged with oversight of the commission, warned Berry in a Jan. 9 letter to seat Kirsanow and withdraw her lawsuit against the administration or face removal from the commission. She could also face criminal penalties if she improperly hired an outside law firm to represent her in court, Chabot said.

Hiring staff pro bono, Chabot said, violated commission statutes prohibiting the use of free services. Chabot added that if the attorneys were paid with government money, Berry could be subject to criminal penalties of up to two years in prison and $5,000 in fines.

Tensions among Berry, the White House and Chabot's committee have escalated since the summer, when Chabot's committee demanded Berry turn over supporting documents used to compile a pro-Democrat report on supposed voting irregularities in the 2000 presidential election. The request came amid growing conflict over whether the statistical data were flawed.

Berry initially refused, saying, "The commission cannot exercise its statutory mandate to act as a watchdog over the enforcement of our civil rights laws, if it is not free to choose its own experts, write reports without interference and publish conclusions without fear of reprisal."

In August, she turned over the documents, but the committee called them insufficient and inconsistent.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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The government said it would appeal. The ruling came in a showdown between the White House and the commission's controversial, partisan chairman, avid Al Gore supporter Mary Frances Berry, who has denied the right of Bush appointee Cleveland attorney Peter Kirsanow to sit...
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Monday, 04 February 2002 12:00 AM
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