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Meet the Conservative U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

  • Written by Media Matters for America
  • Category: Analysis

Washington DC–(ENEWSPF)– Media figures have emphasized the fact that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is technically "bipartisan" to hype its investigation of the Justice Department's actions in the New Black Panther Party case. In reality, the commission's chair has acknowledged that conservatives "gam[ed] the system" and packed the panel with conservative activists, and the commission's two Democrats, as well as one Republican, have criticized the investigation.

Media emphasize that USCCR is "bipartisan"

Kelly: USCCR is an "independent, bipartisan government agency." On her Fox News show, Megyn Kelly reported: "Stunning new developments in the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights -- that's an independent, bipartisan government agency -- investigating why a case against the New Black Panthers was dropped by the DOJ after it had already been won." [Fox News' America Live, 7/8/10]

Brzezinski reports on investigation by "bipartisan panel." On Morning Joe, co-host Mika Brzezinski reported: "A bipartisan panel investigating allegations that the Justice Department wrongly abandoned a case against the New Black Panther Party is planning to issue a new round of subpoenas and call for a separate federal probe." [MSNBC's Morning Joe, 7/8/10]

Washington Examiner: USCCR is "bipartisan." A May 18 post by J.P. Freire on the Washington Examiner blog Beltway Confidential asserted: "A letter of resignation obtained by The Washington Examiner from a former Justice Department employee makes clear DOJ has refused to allow attorneys in the Voting Rights Section to testify before the congressionally-chartered bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, despite subpoenas that could result in their being held in contempt."

Bush used "controversial maneuver" to put commission under "conservative control"

Bush reportedly "used a controversial maneuver to put the agency under conservative control." In a November 6, 2007, Boston Globe article, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie Savage reported that the "Bush administration used a controversial maneuver to put the [U.S. Commission on Civil Rights] under conservative control." Savage reported that "[c]ritics say Bush in effect installed a fifth and sixth Republican on the panel in December 2004, after two commissioners, both Republicans when appointed, reregistered as independents" and that the appointments "have had a sweeping effect, shifting the commission's emphasis from investigating claims of civil rights violations to questioning programs designed to offset the historic effects of discrimination."

NPR: "In practice, three quarters of the members are reliably conservative." NPR's All Things Considered reported, "Today the commission has four Republicans, two Independents and two Democrats. In theory, the commission is following the rules. In practice, three quarters of the members are reliably conservative." The article quoted law professor and former Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Bill Yeomans, who said that the USCCR "charter says that no more than four commissioners can belong to any one political party," but that "[u]nder the Bush administration, two of the Republican commissioners changed their registration to Independent so that two more Republicans could be put on the commission." [All Things Considered, 4/22/10]

NAACP's Julian Bond: USCCR "has become a political arm of the conservative movement in America." A March 16, 2005, Associated Press article reported (accessed via Nexis): "Julian Bond, chair of the NAACP said the commission barely resembles its former incarnation." The article quoted Bond saying, "It's the most conservative commission ever and the one least disposed toward defending, protecting and reporting on civil rights. ... It has become a political arm of the conservative movement in America."

Main Justice: Commission is "conservative-dominated" and "conservative-controlled." A June 14 Main Justice article reported that "the conservative-dominated Civil Rights Commission opened an investigation" into the Justice Department's actions and that "[l]ast month, the conservative-controlled commission heard testimony about the case from Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez."

Commission's investigation slammed as "kangaroo court" by Dem, GOP commissioners

Yaki reportedly called investigation a "kangaroo court." A February 8 article at the legal news website Main Justice reported, "The makeup of the commission has been called into question by some; four of the eight current members of the Civil Rights Commission are Republicans, two are Democrats and two are independents who switched their affiliation from Republican to independent. Months ago Michael Yaki, one of the commission's two Democrats, complained, 'This is basically going to be a partisan kangaroo court, convened by my partisan colleagues.' "

Yaki: "[F]ar right majority" is pursuing "partisan and ideological agenda." In a July 7 statement, Yaki said that the USCCR's "far-right majority" has a "blatant disregard of the bipartisan charge" of the commission and is pursuing "a partisan and ideological agenda." Yaki concluded:

This investigation, such as it is, has been incredibly shallow, expensive, and partisan. There exist serious issues today involving discrimination and racism in this country that the Commission's far-right majority has ignored in its quixotic pursuit of a conspiracy and a policy that do not exist. These proceedings are reminiscent of an inquisition, a star chamber, and a witch hunt. They are not worthy of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Melendez: "[F]ar too much of our time has been consumed on this seemingly unnecessary investigation." During an April 23 commission hearing, commissioner Arlan Melendez said that "far too much of our time has been consumed on this seemingly unnecessary investigation" and that "no citizen has even alleged that he or she was intimidated from voting at the Fairmount Avenue Polling Station in 2008." Melendez also said:

This absence of voter intimidation was clear to the Justice Department last spring, which is why they took the course of action that they did.

This absence of voter intimidation was clear to the members of this Commission as well, or at least it should've been. Our investigation has been going on now for the better part of a year. We have wasted a good deal of our staff's time, and the taxpayers' money.

In addition to that, we have also consumed a considerable amount of the Justice Department's resources, forcing them to devote attention to a case that they had long ago concluded was meritless.

Thernstrom: Inquiry has not "served the interests of the Commission as being a bipartisan watchdog." Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican who serves as co-chairwoman of the Civil Rights Commission and is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote a July 6 National Review Online blog post criticizing the "overheated rhetoric filled with insinuations and unsubstantiated charges" surrounding the case. Thernstrom wrote, "Forget about the New Black Panther Party case; it is very small potatoes." During an April 23 hearing, Thernstrom also said, "I do not think that this inquiry has served the interests of the Commission as being a bipartisan watchdog for important civil rights violations, and I do not believe it has served well the party to which I belong."

Meet the "bipartisan" commissioners

"Independent" Gail Heriot is a long-time GOP activist who became an independent just before her appointment

Heriot reportedly was an alternate delegate to GOP convention and changed to independent seven months before appointment. In the November 2007 Globe article, Savage reported: "In early 2007, Senate Republicans restored the 6-to-2 bloc by appointing Gail Heriot, a member of the conservative Federalist Society who opposes affirmative action." Savage continued: "Heriot was an alternate delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention and was a registered Republican until seven months before her appointment. In an interview, Heriot said her decision to reregister as an independent in August 2006, making her eligible to fill the vacancy, 'had nothing to do with the commission.' " Savage reported that Heriot "declined" to cite any disagreements she had with the Republican Party. [The Boston Globe, 11/6/07]

Heriot is a Federalist Society activist. According to her San Diego University biography, Heriot serves as chair of the conservative Federalist Society's executive committee on civil rights and has been a member since 1998.

Heriot advised GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch. According to her faculty bio page, Heriot served as counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee and "advised Committee Chairman Senator Orrin G. Hatch on civil rights issues and judicial nominees."

Heriot: "Racial and gender preferences act as a straitjacket to diversity." In 1996, Heriot served as the statewide co-chair for California's Proposition 209, a measure that outlawed affirmative action programs. In a July 24, 1996, Washington Times op-ed (from Nexis), Heriot argued in support of California Prop 209 and wrote, "Racial and gender preferences act as a straightjacket to diversity -- both on campus and in the work place. The tyranny of 'keeping up the numbers' prevails." According to a December 6, 1999, Miami Herald article (from Nexis) headlined "Florida chosen as next battleground to try to dismantle racial preferences," Heriot co-wrote a 2000 Florida ballot initiate that sought to end affirmative action in public hiring.

Heriot advocated for Bush judicial nominees. In a May 8, 2002, San Diego Union-Tribune op-ed (from Nexis), Heriot criticized Democrats for their "stony silence" toward Bush judicial nominees Michael McConnell, Miguel Estrada, and John Roberts.

"Independent" Todd Gaziano is a long-time conservative activist who has attacked progressives

Gaziano "served under noted conservative leaders in all three branches of the federal government." Despite being an "independent" on the commission, Gaziano's "Heritage Expert" page on the right-wing Heritage Foundation website states that before joining the organization, he "served under noted conservative leaders in all three branches of the federal government":

Before joining former Attorney General Edwin Meese at The Heritage Foundation in 1997, Mr. Gaziano served under noted conservative leaders in all three branches of the federal government. He was Chief Counsel to the House Subcommittee on National Economic Growth, Natural Resources, and Regulatory Affairs, where he worked on government-wide regulatory reform legislation for Chairman David McIntosh. He served in the Office of Legal Counsel in the U.S. Justice Department, which provides advice on constitutional and legal issues to the President, the Attorney General, and other Cabinet Secretaries. He also served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Edith H. Jones, United States Judge for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gaziano is director of right-wing Heritage Foundation project. Gaziano serves as the director for the Center for Legal & Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Gaziano called "so-called hate crime laws" "counterproductive." Gaziano was quoted in the Chicago Tribune (accessed via Nexis) opposing hate-crime legislation, saying, "Even the best so-called hate crimes laws are redundant, unnecessary and sometimes counterproductive. ... There is no serious evidence that any state is not prosecuting the underlying acts. All states prosecute murder as murder, assault as assault, battery as battery." [Chicago Tribune, 10/19/98]

Gaziano attacked Obama over von Spakovsky hold. A 2007 Politico article reporting on Democrats "blocking" former Justice Department attorney Hans von Spakovsky's controversial nomination to the Federal Election Commission quoted Gaziano attacking then-Sen. Obama's opposition, saying it was "nothing more than fear-mongering with potential liberal voters" and that the hold shows "desperation in his political campaign." A June 14, 2007, New York Times editorial headlined "Another sorry ascension" stated, "It apparently wasn't enough for the Bush administration to pack the Department of Justice with political operatives. The White House has now nominated one of the most meddlesome of those partisans, Hans von Spakovsky, to a powerful post on the Federal Election Commission."

Gaziano supported stripping felons of the right to vote and said minority communities "ought to be most grateful." From a December 17, 2000, Tampa Tribune article (from Nexis):

Todd Gaziano, a senior fellow in legal studies for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank, said stripping felons of the right to vote is no different than ordering them to make restitution or perform community service.

"Part of your punishment, part of your debt, is this continuing inability to vote," he says.

Gaziano rejects arguments that such laws are aimed at stripping blacks of their constitutional right to vote.

"Felons can't possess firearms, either, and that's a clear constitutional right," he says. "I find it curious that those folks who want felons to be able to vote are not clamoring to overturn the state and federal laws prohibiting felons from owning guns."

Gaziano says the disenfranchisement laws provide a benefit to minority communities, which are often economically depressed and crime-ridden: It gives law-abiding citizens the right not to have their votes "diluted" by former lawbreakers.

"If you are concerned about people in those crime-ridden communities you ought not to listen to the hustlers, the race baiters," he says. "You ought to be most grateful for the disenfranchisement laws."

Gaziano helped prepare challenge seeking to overturn Miranda protections. An April 19. 2000, Boston Globe article (accessed via Nexis) reported that Gaziano "has been helping to prepare the challenge" against "the 1966 Supreme Court ruling requiring police officers to read suspects their rights." From the article:

Television viewers of shows from "Dragnet" to "NYPD Blue" know it as well as lawyers: "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law."

Those are the opening lines to the so-called Miranda rights, named for the 1966 Supreme Court ruling requiring police officers to read suspects their rights. But the ruling, which has become embedded in popular culture as deeply as it is rooted in criminal procedure, faces a serious challenge this week. Today, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether Miranda should be drastically scaled back, or even eliminated.

[...]

Miranda's critics argue that it is the honorable police officers whose work is frustrated by a strict reading of the rule. "The suggestion that we're going to retreat to rubber hoses and intimidation is unfair," said Todd Gaziano, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who has been helping to prepare the challenge to Miranda. "No one wants to allow coerced confessions."

Gaziano compared Clinton, federal civil rights officials to segregationists. In a 1998 article titled "The New 'Massive Resistance': The Clinton Administration Defies the Constitution to Save Racial Preferences" in the journal Policy Review, Gaziano compared President Clinton, federal civil rights officials, and federal law-enforcement officials who use "racial preferences to distribute economic and educational opportunities" to segregationists in the South who engaged in "massive resistance" to federal enforcement of civil rights laws.

Gaziano:"[C]onservatives and liberals all agree" Sotomayor is "dumb." Appearing on the August 29, 2009, edition (comments at 16:48) of the syndicated radio show Radio Free Washington Gaziano commented: "The other conclusion I think conservatives and liberals all agree on after the hearing: She's dumb. We all were unimpressed with her intellect." Gaziano later commented: "Well, she's quite smart compared to the average person. Compared to the average potential Supreme Court justice, she's, you know, quite unimpressive."

Chairman Gerald A. Reynolds was a controversial appointment who acknowledged commission's conservative slant

Reynolds was appointed by Bush. Reynolds' USCCR biography states: "President George W. Bush designated Gerald A. Reynolds to serve as Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on December 6, 2004."

Reynolds' appointment said to signal "the end of the commission as an independent voice for the protection of civil and human rights." A Washington Post article reported that Leadership Conference on Civil Rights executive director Wade Henderson "said the Bush administration sought to undermine the intent of the commission by appointing an ideological conservative such as Reynolds." Henderson was quoted as saying, "Gerald Reynolds's selection to head the Civil Rights Commission is the elevation of ideology over substance. ... It signals the end of the commission as an independent voice for the protection of civil and human rights." [The Washington Post, 1/17/05]

Reynolds was criticized by Women's Law Center for opposition to "critical element of civil rights enforcement." In a USA Today article about Reynolds' appointment as assistant secretary of education for the Office of Civil Rights, Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women's Law Center, was quoted saying: "The fact that (Reynolds) comes with stated opposition to such a critical element of civil rights enforcement [Title IX] of the laws he would be charged with overseeing and interpreting is very problematic." [USA Today, 7/18/01]

Reynolds eventually installed through recess appointment after objections were raised to his "longstanding hostility to basic civil rights laws." The New York Times reported in a March 30, 2002, article: "President Bush used his power to make appointments during Congressional recesses today to name a young black lawyer who is a vocal critic of preferences for minorities to be head of the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education." The article reported that "civil rights groups and advocates for women and the disabled, among others, quickly lined up against the nomination, arguing that he was hostile to their concerns and had little experience in the field." The article also quoted Sen. Ted Kennedy saying: "'I was struck by his lack of education policy experience and his longstanding hostility to basic civil rights laws.'' [The New York Times, 3/30/02]

Reynolds acknowledged that conservatives were "gam[ing] the system." NPR reported that Reynolds "does not dispute that his colleagues have the advantage" and quoted Reynolds saying, "I'm a very cynical fellow. ... My assumption is that given an opportunity, Democrats and Republicans will each game the system." The article continued:

In this case, Reynolds does not believe the party switches undermine the intent of the commission's creators.

"I think it is healthy that no one point of view dominates the commission for an extended period of time," he says. "If there was a rule that says commissioners shall not change party affiliations, I think that's problematic. I started out life as a Democrat. Should there be a rule that says, 'Gerry Reynolds you can't change your mind and become a Republican?' I do not see it as a problem." [All Things Considered, 4/22/10]

Ashley J. Taylor Jr. reportedly served as counsel to the McCain campaign during the 2008 election

Taylor was appointed by George W. Bush. Taylor's official biography notes that Taylor "was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by President George W. Bush on December 6, 2004."

Taylor reportedly served as counsel to McCain campaign. A November 3, 2008, Cleveland Plain Dealer article identified Taylor as "an attorney for McCain," and a November 5, 2008, Washington Times article identified Taylor as someone who "represents the McCain campaign."

Taylor served as delegate to 2004 GOP convention. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies listed Taylor among a roster of black delegates and alternates to the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Peter N. Kirsanow has a history of promoting right-wing attacks on progressives

Kirsanow said Obama had a "mentor-protégé" relationship with Ayers. In a September 24, 2008, National Review Online blog post, Kirsanow pushed a Stanley Kurtz piece that he said described "what appears to be an attempt to cover-up the extent of Sen. Obama's ties to William Ayers." Kirsanow called it a "big story" that illustrated that it "certainly looks more like a mentor-protégé relationship than a tenuous relationship between two guys who happen to live in the same neighborhood." Kirsanow concluded his post:

The story of a why an unrepentant terrorist has such a close relationship with a presidential candidate should have reporters swarming over the Obama campaign demanding answers.

Kirsanow invoked right-wing bogeyman ACORN in attacking Obama. In an October 10, 2008, National Review Online post, Kirsanow called on Sen. John McCain to attack Obama for his "judgment/radical associations" and wrote that "as Stanley Kurtz demonstrates, McCain can do both at the same time," since "Obama and Ayers serve together on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge where they funnel tons of cash to finance ACORN." Kirsanow also wrote, "And then there's ACORN's 'voter registration efforts.' "

Kirsanow advanced the falsehood that Obama supported infanticide. In an October 6, 2008, National Review Online blog post, Kirsanow proposed questions for "[a]nyone attending" a town hall to ask Obama. Kirsanow suggested that it would be appropriate to ask whether Obama believes "a baby is a human being" that would be "entitled to human rights" and whether Obama's "uncertainty regarding this issue [is] the reason [he] voted against the Born Alive Infant Protection Act," a falsehood aggressively pushed by right-wing media during the election. Many of Kirsanow's questions continued to advance the false claim that Obama and Ayers were friends.

Kirsanow got recess appointment to NLRB. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Kirsanow was installed to the board through a recess appointment by Bush on January 4, 2006. A January 5, 2006, Associated Press article (from Nexis) reported that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney expressed "disappointment" with Kirsanow's recess appointment and quoted Kennedy saying, "He is an ardent foe of basic worker protections, including the minimum wage and prevailing wage laws, and is a vehement opponent of affirmative action."

Kirsanow has an extensive record of advocating conservative positions on issues of diversity. In his writing for National Review Online, Kirsanow frequently advocates against affirmative action measures in school admissions and hiring. He has criticized Obama's support for affirmative action, derided "diversity" as a "feel-good" term, and called affirmative action in law-school admissions a "return to racially discriminatory policies."

— T.A., M.F.B., S.E., & T.G.

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