The Right Coast

December 22, 2004
The United States Civil Rights Commission Rises Again
By Gail Heriot

Maybe I've been too much of a pessimist lately. Since the disastrous Supreme Court decisions in the University of Michigan cases, I had convinced myself that no good news would ever come out of Washington on civil rights issues. I was wrong.

An important event happened earlier this month: The long reign of Mary Frances Berry as Chairman of the United States Civil Rights Commission finally came to an end. After twenty four years, the Commission will no longer be the personal fiefdom of one very, very strange and combative woman. And with any luck it will again become what it should have been all along--a serious, independent, bipartisan commission investigating compliance with federal civil rights law.

Berry was originally appointed to the Commission by Jimmy Carter. She rewarded him by taking a trip to China and, upon her return, singing the praises of communist education. In particular, she admired the ability of the Chinese communists to "develop what they call socialist consciousness and culture." Carter was suitably embarrassed by her statements, but, like his successors, found he could do nothing.

It's been downhill from there. As chairman, Berry's sharp, but way-off-target attacks on sitting presidents became the Commission's major export (including one on Mr. Clinton, who earned her wrath by withdrawing the nomination of Lani Guinier once Guinier's controversial positions on issues came to light). Some of the "official" reports of the Commission were issued without any effort to get the input or approval of the Republican members. Berry made it clear that she regarded them as the enemy.

Fortunately, even the press eventually caught on to Berry. Salon magazine called her a "vitriolic brawler." The L.A. Times put it more kindly by calling her "combative," but its coverage of her activities was largely unsympahetic. Perhaps that explains why the Commission does not get the same attention and respect it used to. After a while, vitriolic brawlers start to get ignored.

The GAO has called the Commission "an agency in disarray." Despite rules requiring periodic independent audits, none had been conducted during her chairmanship. Berry wouldn't allow it. Nor would she allow anyone to sit on the Commission that she did not approve. When Bush appointee Peter Kirsanow, a conservative black lawyer from Cleveland, tried to take his seat, she prevented him from doing so, and relented only when a federal court ordered her to do so.

Bush's replacement for Berry is Gerald Reynolds, a former Department of Education official. I've known Jerry since his days at the Center for New Black Leadership and couldn't be more pleased with the appointment. Ditto for the Bush's choice of the inimitable Abigail Thernstrom as the replacement for Vice Chairman Cruz Reynoso. Abby (along with her husband Harvard history professor Stephan Thernstrom) is the author of two important recent books on civil rights issues: America in Black and White and No Excuses, both a which are must-reads for anyone interested in the issues the Commission addresses.

It is a measure of just how strange things had gotten at the Commission that much of the press coverage of the last few weeks centered on whether Berry would go quietly at the end of her term. (Weirdly, Berry disputes that her term is actually over and had earlier threatened to stay). Would she turn over her keys? The word is that she did. Would the locks have to be changed anyway? The word is that indeed the locks would have to be changed. In the end, the whole thing had become rather sad.