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Reagan Ousts Commission Members, Angers Congress

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Washington--President Reagan, citing Constitutional and statutory authority, last week officially removed three members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to make room for his own nominees.

His decision, announced by the White House press office on Oct. 25, followed months of fruitless negotiations between the White House and members of the Congress who opposed the President's plan to dismiss the commissioners and replace them with people whose views on issues such as school desegregation, sex equity, and affirmative action more closely match his own.

The President's unprecedented move touched off a storm of criticism in the House and Senate and apparently has kindled a drive to remove the commission from the executive branch and reconstitute it as an arm of the Congress.

It also prompted two of the three ousted commissioners to file a lawsuit in federal district court here seeking a preliminary injunction that would bar their removal from office.

The suit, filed by Mary F. Berry and Blandina Cardenas Ramirez, states that "a longstanding line of Supreme Court cases clearly established that the President has no authority to remove federal officers who were intended by Congress to act independently of executive controls and political interference."

A majority of the commission's members have repeatedly criticized the Administration's civil-rights policies, particularly as they relate to education. Mr. Reagan has already appointed two of the panel's six members as well as its staff director, Linda Chavez Gersten, former assistant to Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

The dispute over Mr. Reagan's desire to appoint three new commissioners has prevented the Congress from voting on a bill to extend the life of the bipartisan fact-finding body, which was created in 1957. Although the commission has no enforcement powers, many of its findings eventually are adopted and transformed into laws and regulations. The panel has been technically "dead" since Sept. 30, the end of the last fiscal year, and is now about halfway through a 60-day period during which it must arrange to cancel its contracts, dispose of its property, and lay off its staff. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1983.)

Mr. Reagan, in a statement released through the White House press office, said he had "no choice but to remove the three 'holdover' commissioners" in order to break the deadlock with the Congress.

"It should be emphasized that the issue at stake in this matter is not the removal of certain individuals or the Civil Rights Commission itself," the statement said. "The issue is the responsibility of the President to exercise the power given to him by law. It is that constitutional power of appointment, so long a part of the American political tradition, that is at stake here."

Mr. Reagan also noted that the legislation creating the commission states that its members serve at the President's pleasure. "That fact is confirmed on the certificate of appointment held by every commissioner who has ever served," he said.

Mr. Reagan's move, somewhat overshadowed by press attention on the invasion of Grenada, came hours before a Senate Judiciary Committee vote that would have extended the life of the commission at least temporarily and would have recommended keeping the holdover commissioners in office.

The chairman of the committee, Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, canceled the session after the White House informed him of the dismissals in an early-morning telephone call, according to a committee staff member.

Congressional sources said the committee was prepared to act on a compromise measure that would have expanded the commission's membership from six to eight and permitted only two of the President's nominees to be seated. Under that arrangement, commissioners who generally have been critical of the President's policies would have remained in the majority. By firing three of the commission's members, Mr. Reagan has effectively silenced the body because four members are needed for a quorum.

The panel reportedly was poised to release its annual assessment of the federal civil-rights budget in the next few weeks. In the past two years, such reviews have concluded that the enforcement of civil rights has been eroded seriously by budget reductions and personnel cuts ordered by the President.

The Senate Judiciary Committee's senior Democratic member, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, said he was "disappointed and angered'' by the President's move, adding that it "obviously ends any hope of getting the President to sign an authorization bill that might pass both houses."

In addition, the Senate Democratic Conference, representing all 45 Democrats in that chamber, adopted a resolution accusing the President of "undermining the independence" of the commission with a "unilateral action which was clearly designed to pre-empt the Congress from exercising its will."

Senator Biden, along with Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, introduced a bill shortly after the President's announcement calling for the creation a new civil-rights panel under the legislative branch. Under their proposal, the new panel would consist of eight members, four appointed by the speaker of the House and four by the president pro tem of the Senate, upon the recommendations of the chambers' minority and majority leaders. The new body would retain the powers and responsibilities of the current commission, and the new legislation would prevent the dismissal of members without cause.

The Senators' bill was offered as a concurrent resolution. Such measures do not need the President's signature to take effect, and, therefore, are immune from Presidential vetoes.

Representatives Don Edwards, Democrat of California, and Hamilton Fish Jr., Republican of New York, reportedly were preparing to introduce a companion measure in the House, according to House aides.

The commissioners removed from office, and the people named as their replacements, are:

Ms. Berry, onetime assistant secretary and acting commissioner of education in the former U.S. Office of Education. Ms. Berry, who was appointed during the Carter Administration and is now a professor of law and history at Howard University, would be replaced by Morris B. Abram, the former president of Brandeis University and former chairman of the United Negro College Fund.

Ms. Ramirez, director of the InterCultural Development Association in San Antonio. Ms. Ramirez, also appointed during the Carter Administration, would be replaced by John H. Bunzel, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace.

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

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