Can the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Be Saved?

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In the 1960s the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was hailed as "the conscience of the nation." Its systematic public exposure of segregation was crucial to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But today, petty political squabbles threaten to condemn the body to irrelevance.

The latest ruckus involves the makeup of the commission itself. The dispute centers around Peter Kirsanow, an intense Cleveland labor lawyer with a smooth-shaven head and Salvador Dali moustache. In December George Bush appointed Kirsanow, the former head of the conservative Center for New Black Leadership, to fill the seat of Victoria Wilson, a liberal former book publisher who is best known for editing the vampire novels of Anne Rice. The move threatened liberal Mary Frances Berry's control of the commission: with Wilson seated, there are five liberals and three conservatives; Kirsanow would even the votes at four each.

Wilson had been appointed in January, 2000, upon the death of commissioner Leon Higginbotham. The Bush administration contends Wilson was simply completing Higginbotham's term; White House records say she was appointed "for the remainder of the term expiring November 29, 2001." Berry says the records are mistaken, that the law guarantees all commissioners full six-year terms. She also charges Bush is trying to muzzle the commission in response to its Florida election report, which accused Jeb Bush of being "grossly derelict" in enforcing the law. In December Berry told the Justice Department it would take federal marshals to seat Kirsanow. Last week a federal judge sided with Berry; the Justice Department is appealing.

But regardless of who wins, there are real questions about whether the group will still be taken seriously. When the group went to New York in 2000 to examine racial profiling, critics dismissed its findings, calling them a thinly veiled attack on Rudolph Giuliani: the commission leaked its report just as Giuliani was announcing his campaign for Senate. Conservatives have called the Florida report "scandalously biased," and even some liberals have questioned its statistical findings.

Most recently, the commission's hotline for reporting incidents of hate crimes or discrimination in the wake of the September 11 tragedy — which should have been an uncontroversial public service — began as a joke and ended as a potential tragedy. The initial press release listed the wrong 800-number, sending callers not to the commission but to a love connection service. Then, once calls began to pour in, the commission did not forward to Justice the reports it collected. In a scathing letter to the commission, assistant attorney general for civil rights Ralph Boyd wrote: "Simply put, your refusal prevents the Department of Justice from investigating or otherwise following up these reports in order to ensure that people who need protecting are, in fact, protected." Les Jin, the commission's staff director, responded that the commission doesn't keep a written record of every phone call, and that complainants are given the phone number of the appropriate agency to call themselves. At a contentious hearing on the matter, Berry said, "People around the country have expressed their gratitude, so I think we ought to be proud that we're doing this rather than worrying about whether it's helping anybody."

The series of controversies has even begun to cast doubt on the credibility of future reports. In April the commission plans to examine the impact of standardized testing on minorities; critics say Berry is looking for an excuse to criticize the president's education bill. Says Jennifer Braceras, the most recent Republican appointee: "the commission has outlived its usefulness."

After 22 years on the panel, Berry is undeterred. "We don't serve the pundits in Washington," she says. "We serve the under-represented, the disenfranchised. They tell us we're still needed." Kirsanow thinks so, too. That's why he says he'll continue to fight for his seat. "There are very important issues that still need to be addressed," he says. "In the end, I do believe we all want the same thing."