Legal Group Says Civil Rights Commission Subpoenas 'Purely Political'

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - The controversial civil rights commission has issued subpoenas to three members of President Bush's cabinet and the director of the Environmental Protection Agency in a move that critics of the commission call "purely political."

The United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) issued subpoenas for its Feb. 8 hearing on "environmental justice" to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Todd Whitman.

The commission notified Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton by mail that she would be receiving a subpoena, as well.

A spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development had no knowledge of the subpoena and could not imagine why the commission would not simply invite the Secretary, or his designated spokesman, to appear.

The other departments involved have said that they have scheduling conflicts for the Feb. 8 date, but all offered to make deputy secretaries and issue experts available to the panel.

The subpoenas come just one week before the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. will hear a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department against disputed USCCR member Victoria Wilson.

The White House claims Wilson's term expired Nov. 29, 2001, the end of the unexpired term of deceased former Commissioner A. Leon Higginbotham, who Wilson was appointed to replace. Her commission letter lists the Nov. 29 date as the expiration of her term.

Wilson, supported by commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, contends that all Commissioners are appointed to six-year terms, regardless of the reason for or timing of their appointment. If correct, Wilson's term would not expire until January 13, 2007. Wilson routinely supports Berry's position in votes before the body.

The Bush administration has filed suit in federal court to have Wilson, whose term expired Nov. 29, 2001, removed from the commission. President Bush appointed Cleveland, Ohio, labor attorney Peter Kirsanow to serve a full six-year term on the panel beginning December 7, 2001.

Kirsanow's appointment would more evenly distribute the political ideology on the panel, which critics charge has tilted to the extreme left under Berry's control.

Mark Levin, president of the Landmark Legal Foundation, believes the Justice Department should ask the federal courts to block the subpoenas.

"Ms. Berry comes straight out of the radical new left school of politics," Levin said. "So she doesn't play by the rules and she has no intention of playing by the rules."

USCCR Staff Director Les Jin, admitted in a published report that he could not remember the last time a cabinet member had been called before the body, though he called the subpoenas "routine."

Levin says his research could not turn up any other examples of a government commission subpoenaing cabinet secretaries or agency directors, rather than topical experts, for an issue specific hearing.

"Her goal here is to embarrass people," he added, "and to get splashy headlines. She's not interested in anything substantive."

Levin says despite the "entertainment value" of Berry's actions, the issues involved are serious.

He said he wondered, "Whether this commission, under her leadership, is going to continue to thwart the law and the will of the people."

Levin believes the White House should intensify its efforts to have Wilson removed from the commission by the courts.

"The government should aggressively pursue its case to remove Ms. Berry's flunky, Victoria Wilson, from the commission," he said, "to restore the rule of law to what has become the 'Un-civil No Rights Commission.'"

While Levin says he can understand that some people might agree with Berry's political agenda, he cannot understand anyone wanting taxpayers' dollars used for that pursuit.

"If she was doing this on her own dime and on her own time, that would be fine," he argued. "The problem is [that] we're subsidizing this. It's time for Ms. Berry to get off the dole and see if she can raise money voluntarily to promote her extremist agenda."

Levin says he doubts Berry could raise funding for a private group to support her political views. This is the reason, he believes, that Berry has sought to promote her agenda through a federal commission.

"Ms. Berry is making a fool out of herself," Levin said. "But she's been doing that for 20 years, so I suppose that's no great revelation."

Calls to the USCCR were not returned prior to the publication of this story.

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