White House accuses civil rights chair of divisive language

Thursday, December 6, 2001

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights used divisive and "inflammatory rhetoric" when she told the White House that U.S. marshals would have to force her to seat Bush's new appointee, President Bush's spokesman said.

In frustrated tones, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer took the unusual step Thursday of detailing the heated, private conversation earlier this week between White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, who maintains that the term of the commissioner Bush wants to replace has not expired.

"She said that she would refuse to seat any new people appointed by President Bush in this manner. She said she will refuse to swear him in. ... She further said that the only way she will let this person be seated is if the U.S. marshals show up and force her to do so," Fleischer told reporters.

"Particularly coming from the Civil Rights Commission, that is exactly the wrong approach a nation that needs racial healing needs to hear. This is inflammatory rhetoric for a commission whose mission has to be to bring people together. ... That type of bellicose language drives people apart," he added.

Gonzales urged Berry in a letter Wednesday to respect the president's planned appointment of Peter Kirsanow, a Cleveland lawyer who is a member of the largely conservative Center for New Black Leadership. Berry disputes Bush's contention that a commission seat is now open.

Gonzales said her refusal to seat Kirsanow at the next commission meeting, possibly as early as Friday, would "violate the law." The White House announced Kirsanow's appointment late Wednesday.

Kirsanow's appointment would rein in the authority of Chairwoman Berry -- a frequent critic of the 2000 elections and particularly Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, younger brother of the president.

"If you send somebody to the meeting, there will be no vacancy," Berry said she told Gonzales in their phone conversation Tuesday. Berry said the dispute is "about the independence and integrity of the commission. It's a unique agency -- a watchdog over the enforcement of civil rights, by the president, the Justice Department and all federal agencies."

The sitting commissioner in question, Victoria Wilson, is politically an independent who often sides with Berry. Wilson was appointed in January 2000 after the death of Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., who died in 1998.

The Bush administration maintains Ms. Wilson's term ended Nov. 29, at the time Higginbotham's term would have expired if he had lived. Berry and Wilson argue federal law only says new commissioners will fill a six-year term.

"The 1994 statute says that if there is a vacancy the term of any new member is six years -- period," said Leon Friedman, attorney for Wilson and a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University. He said the statute was amended in 1994 to simplify it.

But Gonzales said in his letter that it was clearly specified when Wilson was appointed that her commission would expire Nov. 29, 2001. He said there is no official record of any efforts by Wilson to contact the White House clerk and amend her appointment to a six-year commission term.

The commission is currently split 6-2 between commissioners who lean Democratic and lean Republican. The White House last month announced it intends to appoint Jennifer Cabranes Braceras to replace, Yvonne Lee, whose term expires in early December. The Kirsanow appointment would split the commission 4-4 along largely partisan lines and would likely hinder Berry's ability to take actions with the backing of a majority of the commission.

In her work for the commission, Berry has criticized every president since Jimmy Carter, who appointed her and later got pressure from her over the levels of financial aid for the poor. President Reagan fired her but had to reinstate her after a lawsuit. Former Presidents Bush and Clinton haven't been spared.

"You went so far as to state that it would require the presence of federal marshals to seat him," Gonzales said in his letter, referring to Kirsanow. "I respectfully urge you to abandon this confrontational and legally untenable position."

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