A week ago, an Op-Ed column appeared in the New York Times by Mary Frances Berry, the chairwoman of the Commission on Civil Rights from 1993 to 2004, in which she made the following observation…
The Commission on Civil Rights has been crippled since the Reagan years by the appointments of commissioners who see themselves as agents of the presidential administration rather than as independent watchdogs. The creation of a new, independent human and civil rights commission could help us determine our next steps in the pursuit of freedom and justice in our society. A number of explosive issues like immigration reform await such a commission, but recommendations for resolving the controversies over the rights of gays, lesbians and transgendered people should be its first order of business.
I thought that was interesting because I haven’t read too many African American leaders speaking of the struggles of LGBT individuals in terms similar to the struggles they faced themselves, and still do today.
Well, in response (and inadvertently validating Berry’s claim, I think), we have this letter from two members of the current commission, in full-on umbrage mode I should add; it appeared in the Times today…
In “Gay but Equal?” (Op-Ed, Jan. 16), Mary Frances Berry argues that the United States Commission on Civil Rights should be abolished and replaced with “a new commission” addressing “the rights of many groups, including gays.”
Ms. Berry’s concern is not with the commission’s lack of jurisdiction over sexual orientation issues, which could be remedied by statutory amendment. Rather, her grievance is that the commission has a conservative majority and will retain that majority until 2010, when President Obama is scheduled to make his first appointments.
During Ms. Berry’s tumultuous tenure as commission chairwoman, the Government Accountability Office called it “an agency in disarray,” which lacked “basic management controls.”
In contrast, today it has received three consecutive clean audits, substantially increased the quality and integrity of its reports and has been taken seriously again as an independent civil rights watchdog.
We trust that President Obama will not look to Ms. Berry for advice on the commission.
(Berry’s original column is linked from the Times letter today, I should note.)
Funny, but I didn’t read in Berry’s original column the words “crippled since the Reagan years, though everything was cool when I was in charge during Clinton’s administration and Bush’s first term.” Methinks the authors of the Times’ letter today, Abigail Thernstrom (pic above right) and Gail Heriot (left) doth protest too much (and attacking Berry for her term, aside from being mean spirited – particularly when Berry didn’t mention Thernstrom or Heriot by name in her original column – is hardly the point).
So as you might expect, this made me curious to learn more about Thernstrom and Heriot and their roles in Dubya’s Commission on Civil Rights, and as former Boston Globe (and current New York Times) reporter Charlie Savage told us here in July 2006 (Savage has been following the doings at Dubya’s CCR for awhile now)…
…documents show(ed) that only 42 percent of the lawyers hired since 2003 (for the CCR), after the administration changed the rules to give political appointees more influence in the hiring process, have civil rights experience. In the two years before the change, 77 percent of those who were hired had civil rights backgrounds.
In an acknowledgment of the department’s special need to be politically neutral, hiring for career jobs in the Civil Rights Division under all recent administrations, Democratic and Republican, had been handled by civil servants — not political appointees.
But in the fall of 2002, then-attorney general John Ashcroft changed the procedures. The Civil Rights Division disbanded the hiring committees made up of veteran career lawyers.
For decades, such committees had screened thousands of resumes, interviewed candidates, and made recommendations that were only rarely rejected.
Now, hiring is closely overseen by Bush administration political appointees to Justice, effectively turning hundreds of career jobs into politically appointed positions.
And when discussing Bushco acolytes in high government positions where they had no business whatsoever, particularly here, the name of Hans von Spakovsky comes to mind, kind of the same way a case of acid reflux attacks you at an unsuspecting moment; as TPM Muckracker’s Kate Klonick tells us here…
…(von Spakovsky), (t)he former Justice Department official whose nomination to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was thwarted when Democrats objected to his long record of support for restrictions on voting rights, has been hired as a “consultant and temporary full-time employee” at the ostensibly bi-partisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR).
And in today’s Times letter, Thernstrom and Heriot tell us that the USCCR is being run oh so much more efficiently now than it was under Berry’s tenure, right?
Well, as Klonick tells us…
So where is the money (for von Spakovsky’s $125 K salary) coming from? Well it turns out that USCCR is about $400,000 (pdf) under budget, and something had to be done with all that money before December (’08). Although according to a federal source, the agency has other pressing needs — understaffing and out-of-date technology — the commissioners decided instead to spend at least part of that money on four temporary staff assistants.
And concerning Thernstrom, this Sourcewatch article tells us that she wrote a book highly critical of affirmative action in 1987, vigorously challenged allegations of systematic bias against minorities in the 2000 Florida presidential election, and has called for all Democrats to be removed outright from the board of the USCCR.
Sourcewatch also tells us that…
Thernstrom first attracted the attention of conservatives with a thundering denunciation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Public Interest magazine in 1978. She “distinguished herself with her hostility toward any method of promoting black and minority representation”. 
And as of last August when Klonick of TPM wrote her story about von Spakovsky, of the eight commissioners on the
Civil Rights Commission CCR, it should be noted that only two were Democrats.
How did that happen, I hear you ask? Well, for more information, we should turn to Gail Heriot, Thernstrom’s fellow CCR member. As Savage tells Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! here…
(Heriot is) a law professor in San Diego, very conservative, a member of the Federalist Society, (who) had been a delegate to the 2000 Republican Convention and had applied to join the state panel in California, state advisory panel for the US Civil Rights Commission, calling herself a Republican in 2006. But shortly after that, in August of ‘06, she reregistered as an independent, and six months later Senate Republicans installed her as an independent, because there were still four Republicans officially on the panel, as a fifth conservative. She’s still there now. She was just reappointed to a new six-year term yesterday as an independent. She said she just has some policy differences with the Republican Party. I asked her to name one, and she declined.
So a Repug changing their party affiliation to “independent” is a nice way for them to stack the commission with like-minded right-wing ideologues, huh?
Well, at least Thernstrom or Heriot didn’t refer to Berry as “black and bitter,” as John Tanner, former chief of the CCR, did (noted here, with Tanner apologizing profusely after he was caught saying that in an Email – idiot).
To conclude, I should note again that the authors of today’s letter state that “they trust that Obama will not look to Ms. Berry for advice on the commission.”
I don’t know about that. But I can guarantee you that he won’t look to Thernstrom or Heriot for “advice” either.