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Administration Plans To Replace Three Civil-Rights Commissioners

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Washington--President Reagan, in a move that was condemned by numerous civil-rights organizations, announced last week that he would dismiss three members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights--all of whom have been critical of his policies.

He said he would ask the Senate to approve the nominations of appointees whose conservative views more closely match his own.

According to one of the commissioners facing dismissal, as of late last week neither he nor his two colleagues had been officially notified by the White House of the President's intention to replace them.

"So far we've only heard from reporters," Rabbi Murray Saltzman said. "To the best of my understanding, we will continue to serve on the commission until the other people are confirmed by the Senate. Otherwise, the commission would be immobilized." A spokesman for the White House subsequently confirmed this.

Request Chavez's Approval

Mr. Reagan also announced that he would ask the Senate to approve the appointment of Linda Chavez Gersten, the staff director of the American Federation of Teachers (aft), as the commission's staff director.

Ms. Chavez, who would be filling a position that is currently vacant, said she had not seen reports of the civil-rights groups' criticism of the President's proposed appointments. "All I can say is that I am committed to civil rights; I have a long history in civil rights and education; and I have done nothing, nor will I do anything in the future, to undermine civil-rights enforcement," she said.

Both the aft and the Reagan Administration have taken positions in federal courts against the layoffs by school boards of senior white teachers in order to preserve the jobs of recently hired minority teachers.

The bipartisan, six-member commission, which has no enforcement powers, is the federal government's primary civil-rights monitoring agency. Its members do not have set terms of office but serve at the pleasure of the President.

Prior to Mr. Reagan's tenure in office, only one commission member--the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University--had been forced to resign from the panel. Rev. Hesburgh was asked to step down from the commission's chairmanship by former President Richard M. Nixon.

Although Mr. Reagan has appointed two members to the panel since taking office, the majority of its members--appointed during the Ford and Carter Administrations--have been highly critical of his positions on civil rights.

Much of the panel's criticism has centered on education-related issues, most notably in the areas of school desegregation, sex equity, the rights of the handicapped, and affirmative action in hiring.

According to the White House, the panel members facing dismissal are:

Mary F. Berry, a former assistant secretary and acting commissioner of education in the former U.S. Office of Education who was appointed to the commission during the Carter Administration. Ms. Berry would be replaced by Morris B. Abram, a lawyer from New York and the former president of Brandeis University.

Rabbi Saltzman of Baltimore, who was appointed during the Ford Administration. Rabbi Saltzman would be replaced by Robert A. Destro, the former general counsel to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Blandina Cardenas Ramirez, director of the InterCultural Development Association in San Antonio, who was also appointed to the commission during the Ford Administration. Ms. Ramirez would be replaced by John H. Bunzel, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the former president of San Jose State University.

Mr. Reagan has already appointed the commission's chairman, Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., and its vice-chairman, Mary Louise Smith. They replaced the former commission chairman, Arthur S. Flemming, and Commissioner Stephen Horn, respectively. Mr. Reagan requested the resignations of both Mr. Flemming and Mr. Horn.

If the Presidential appointments announced last week are approved by the Senate, the commission will have only one member who was not appointed by Mr. Reagan--Jill S. Ruckelshaus, who became a member of the commission during the Carter Administration.

Ms. Ruckelshaus, a teacher and former adviser to President Ford on women's affairs, is the wife of William D. Ruckelshaus, whom President Reagan recently named as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mr. Reagan attempted to replace Ms. Ruckleshaus last year with the Rev. Sam Hart, a radio evangelist from Philadelphia. He withdrew Rev. Hart's nomination in the face of strong opposition in the Senate to his views on the equal rights amendment, homosexuals, and busing for desegregation purposes.

Nominations Lapsed

Mr. Reagan also attempted last year to replace the three commission members currently facing dismissal, but the nominations of the people named to replace them lapsed when the Senate declined to act on them. One of those was Mr. Destro.

Press reports earlier this month said that Mr. Reagan planned to appoint the new commission members during the Congress's Memorial Day recess. This caused some controversy because, according to the Constitution, if the President had chosen this route, his nominees could have served in office for up to a year without having to submit to approval by the Senate. Last week, however, the White House announced that it would not submit the nominations during the holiday recess.

According to a spokesman for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will review the appointees initially, the White House was expected to send the nominations to the Congress by the end of last week.

According to Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Mr. Reagan's "attempt at wholesale replacement of commission members seriously jeopardizes the independence, integrity, and effectiveness of the commission."

"For 25 years, all presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, have sought to preserve the unique bipartisan independence of the commission," said Mr. Neas.

"Now it appears that the President is about to shatter that proud tradition in an unprecedented move to have the commission reflect his philosophies, programs, and policies," he continued. "The impending mass firing will mark a sad day for those committed to the commission's mandate as expressed by President Eisenhower: 'putting the facts on the table."'

He added that "comprehensive hearings must be conducted to examine the qualifications of the nominees and their commitment to an independent and effective civil-rights commission."

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