WASHINGTON — Justice Department lawyers have filed a federal lawsuit asking a judge to remove a member from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights so that a Bush administration appointee can succeed her on a board that tilts toward Democrats.
The appointee--Peter N. Kirsanow, a Cleveland labor lawyer--was also named as one of the plaintiffs against Commissioner Victoria Wilson, who is clinging to her seat despite the White House's contention that her term expired at the end of November. Wilson was appointed by President Clinton to fill in for Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, who died in December 1998.
The suit requests that the judge declare that "Kirsanow is now, and has been, since the date of his appointment" by President Bush on Dec. 6, "a member of the commission." It further asserts that "Wilson is no longer entitled or empowered to serve as a member of the commission since Nov. 29, 2001."
The lawsuit was dropped in a night box of the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia on Friday after a raucous commission meeting that Kirsanow attended, knowing that the panel's chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, would refuse to seat him.
At the meeting, Berry and Wilson, both independents, joined three Democrats in voting not to recognize Kirsanow. They did so over the vigorous protests of two Republicans and an independent who favor his appointment.
Afterward, Berry said her vote had less to do with Kirsanow than with preserving the commission's independence from the whims of the president. Nevertheless, Kirsanow's presence would likely split the board, which has a Democrat-leaning majority.
Wilson's attorney, Leon Friedman, said his client should serve until 2006 and would fight the suit.
The opposing arguments center on the traditions associated with presidential and congressional appointments to the commission, and a little-noticed act of Congress in 1994 that could allow Wilson to remain in her seat.