Civil Rights Panel Changes May Cause Clash

Times Staff Writer

President Bush plans to name a new chairman and vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission as early as Monday, a move that could end the tumultuous reign of its current chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry.

Berry, who has been a member of the commission for 24 of its 47 years, has been a bane to presidents who tried to fire her or dodge her. She has been targeted in repeated Government Accountability Office reports alleging mismanagement of the agency. She has been the butt of biting comments, such as Salon magazine’s jab that she is “a vitriolic brawler.”

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission, created by President Eisenhower in 1957, is charged with investigating complaints of racial discrimination. With a budget of $9 million and a staff of 70, it has no enforcement powers. But the agency’s effect sometimes has been greater than its size.


After the 2000 elections, the commission’s report on disenfranchised voters in Florida was one of the forces that propelled Congress to enact reforms, allowing voters whose eligibility was in question to cast provisional ballots. The White House, citing court precedents, says the terms of Berry and Vice Chairman Cruz Reynoso expire at midnight Sunday. But Berry says commission documents show that her appointment expires Jan. 21.

That difference could set up a clash as soon as next week. “There will be two vacancies come Dec. 5, and the president will move quickly to appoint two individuals who share his strong commitment to uphold civil rights for all Americans,” White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said.

Berry this week canceled the commission’s next meeting, scheduled for Friday. But Republicans on the commission are demanding that it meet. People familiar with the workings of the panel envision a scenario in which Bush appoints a new chairman, who then calls a December meeting -- setting up a confrontation in which Berry would show up and vie for the chairman’s gavel.

On Wednesday, Berry and Reynoso issued a stinging attack on Bush’s civil rights record, saying “the spiraling demise of hope for social justice and healing has deepened over the past four years.”

Their report had not been approved by the commission, and opponents saw it less as a statement about Bush’s record than a comment on Berry’s.

“That’s Berry’s attempt to prepare the ground for the battle ahead,” one former staff member who still worked in the federal government said on the condition of anonymity. “She wants the story to be about Bush ‘retaliating’ against them for issuing a report that makes him look bad.”

First appointed by President Carter in 1980, Berry has been reappointed to the panel several times. This time, Berry said in an interview Friday, she has no plans to fight or wrangle her way back on the commission.

“I’m tired of railing at presidents,” she said. “I’ve had fun. It’s time for somebody else.”

But many who know Berry, or have watched her operate, find it hard to imagine that she will simply walk away.

“We’ll see,” said Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and one of the commission’s Republican members. “Your guess as good as mine.”

Some critics of Berry said that her influence could outlast her membership on the commission. “She has the keys to all the doors, and the staff is very loyal,” said one Capitol Hill staffer who monitors the commission as part of congressional oversight.

For example, the position of commission general counsel was elevated from a political appointment to a career slot during Berry’s tenure. Critics charge moves like that -- which Berry said was the decision of the panel’s staff director and not her office -- will make it more difficult for a new Republican team to steer policy.

In addition to studying the 2000 election, the commission under Berry’s stewardship investigated racial quota programs on college campuses in Texas, Florida and California. According to Berry, that work helped lay the groundwork for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the affirmative action program at the University of Michigan.

Thernstrom said she did not think Berry “helped the credibility of the agency” but noted that times have changed since the commission’s early years of “indispensable” research in documenting the egregious violations of voting rights in the South that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“The commission no longer has a monopoly on examining these issues,” Thernstrom said, citing the “deep-pocket resources” of groups such as the NAACP to investigate voter disenfranchisement and other civil rights infringements.

But commission member Christopher Edley Jr., dean of UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, said: “The tragedy is that a sharp reduction in resources has really hamstringed the ability of the agency to play the watchdog functions it fulfilled so well in 1960s and 1970s.”

The commission budget has been stagnant since the mid-1990s, when Republicans balked at spending greater sums, citing GAO criticism of the agency’s fiscal management.

Edley said he was also planning to leave the commission. His term expires in April, but he said he “might as well get off sooner rather than later.” He has told congressional Democrats that they should start looking for his replacement.

Battling civil rights abuses and official Washington was an assignment tailor-made for Berry, 66, a historian and writer who was born in segregationist Nashville. She spent her early years in an orphanage with her brother before her mother reclaimed the children when Berry was 4 years old.

As the combative head of the commission, she embarrassed Carter by returning from a trip to Beijing extolling the virtues of communist education, with its ability to “develop what they call socialist consciousness and culture.”

President Reagan tried to fire her and two other commissioners on grounds that such appointees served at the pleasure of the president. Berry took him to court -- and won. “I’m proud of Reagan firing me for criticizing his civil rights policy,” she said. “I think he told the press that I served at the pleasure of the president and that I wasn’t giving him any pleasure.”

She lashed out at President Clinton for his treatment of black female appointees, including former Surgeon Gen. Jocelyn Elders and Lani Guinier, whose appointment to be assistant attorney general for civil rights was withdrawn as too controversial.

Fireworks erupted again three years ago when President Bush named Peter Kirsanow, a black Republican lawyer from Cleveland, to the commission. Berry refused to seat him, taking the administration to court. This time, she lost.