Mary Frances Berry, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is a bully. Her most recent escapade -- last Friday -- involved her refusal to seat Peter Kirsanow, the man appointed by President Bush to a commission seat that became vacant on Nov. 29. Berry told White House counsel Al Gonzales he'd better send federal marshals if he wanted Kirsanow to take his lawful place on the commission.
But her outrageous behavior in this incident is nothing new. I've watched her in action for years, even before President Reagan appointed me staff director, the chief executive officer of the commission, in 1983 when she served as vice chairman. She once bullied a member of the commission staff so badly -- in words not fit to print in a family newspaper -- I had to threaten to have her removed from the building.
"Your use of intimidating curses and vile language as well as your overall abuse of a subordinate go far beyond permissible behavior," I informed her in a memo. "If you repeat such abusive behavior in the future, I will ask you to remove yourself from the premises and will seek to have you removed if you do not comply."
"Call It Uncivil" The New York Times dubbed the conflict, one of many in our stormy tenure together.
Berry was first appointed to the commission in 1980, largely to get rid of her at the then Department of Health, Education and Welfare, where she served as an assistant secretary. Berry had embarrassed the Carter administration by returning from a trip to China extolling the Maoist education system there, including its use of ethnic quotas in higher education. So President Carter passed over Berry when he created the new Department of Education, shipping her off to the Civil Rights Commission instead. She's been getting even with presidents ever since.
In 1983, President Reagan fired Berry and two other commissioners. At the time, commissioners were appointed to serve "at the pleasure of the president," like all presidential appointees of executive branch departments and agencies. But Berry refused to go -- until I changed the locks on the door.
She then went to court to fight her removal, and got a favorable ruling from a liberal District Court judge. But in the meantime, the Congress re-wrote the law, authorizing the president to appoint four commissioners for six-year terms and Congressional leaders to appoint an additional four members with the same conditions, thus mooting her court case, which had moved to the U.S. Court of Appeals by then.
I was with President Reagan in the Oval Office when he signed the new law, but he did so with strong reservations. The Justice Department had issued a legal opinion questioning whether the new commission structure was Constitutional. Article II, section two clearly gives the president exclusive right, with the advice and consent of the Senate, to appoint ambassadors, judges and "all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for."
The Constitution limits Congress' role to vest the appointment of "inferior officers" by law in the president alone, the courts or the heads of departments -- but not to assign such powers to itself.
Ignoring such Constitutional niceties, the Democrats in Congress proceeded to appoint four commissioners, including Berry, for six-year terms. And she's been reappointed every time her commission expired since then.
President Clinton appointed her chairman when he took office, but even he had reservations about Berry. When he decided to initiate what he called a "national dialogue on race," he kept Berry out of the picture, appointing a whole new commission to oversee the enterprise.
President Clinton also appointed Victoria Wilson on Jan. 13, 2000, to fill the unexpired term of a commissioner who had died. The presidential appointment Wilson received clearly states her term expired Nov. 29, 2001. It's Wilson's place Kirsanow should have taken last week after President Bush appointed him and he was sworn in by a federal judge. But Berry believes she -- not President Bush nor President Clinton -- determines when commissioners' terms expire.
The White House says they'll take Berry to court to force her to seat Kirsanow. The president ought to fire Berry at the same time. As long as this issue is going to wind up in the courts, why not settle the question left unanswered in 1983? Since when did the Constitution permit Congress to limit the president's right to appoint and remove officers of executive branch agencies anyway?