Troubled Civil-Rights Panel Faces Uncertain Future

By Julie A. Miller — March 29, 1989 3 min read

Washington--The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which became an ideological battleground during the Reagan Administration, is again in turmoil.

William Barclay Allen, the panel’s current chairman, has been reprimanded by his fellow commissioners for embroiling himself in a custody battle over a Native-American girl, and the White House is reportedly seeking to replace him.

“We’ve been hit by one shock after another,” said a senior staff member, who requested anonymity. “This we do not need.”

The incident could be a factor in Congressional debate over the commission’s reauthorization, which is scheduled

“This doesn’t help their credibility any,” said a Democratic aide on the House Judiciary Committee. “Many members were already wondering whether we should just let the commission die, given the events of the last eight years.”

Mr. Allen and an associate were detained by police in Arizona last month on kidnapping charges after they talked with an Apache girl who was involved in a custody dispute between her mother, her adoptive parents, and tribal leaders.

The encounter was videotaped by an NBC news crew.

Mr. Allen showed parts of the tape at a March 17 meeting of the eight-member commission, and said in a lengthy statement that he merely wanted to interview the girl.

He then suggested that all the commissioners resign, allowing the President and the Congress to name a new panel. He said the commission had been “rendered impotent” by “politics and incoherence inside.”

The other commissioners instead issued a statement disassociating the panel from Mr. Allen’s actions in Arizona and calling on him to apologize to the people involved.

News reports last week quoted unnamed White House officials as saying the Bush Administration planned to seek Mr. Allen’s resignation and to replace him with Arthur A. Fletcher, a moderate black Republican who has been a longtime Bush supporter.

Mr. Allen, who had been professor of government at Harvey Mudd College in California, was nominated by President Reagan for the chairman’s post after the unexpected death of Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. last summer.

A White House spokesman denied that Mr. Allen was being pressured to resign but confirmed that Mr. Fletcher was a strong candidate for a seat on the commission.

After a hearing on the commission’s budget last week, at which lawmakers grilled Mr. Allen about the Arizona incident, the chairman told reporters he had no plans to resign.

Mr. Allen’s term does not expire until 1992, but the terms of two other Presidential appointees expire late this year, and President Bush could designate a new chairman without replacing Mr. Allen.

The other four commissioners are appointed by the Congress; the terms of two also expire in late 1989.

Even if its membership does not change radically, this is likely to be a watershed year for the commission, as its authorization expires Nov. 30 and the Congress must decide whether to retain, restructure, or eliminate it.

The commission staff member said Mr. Allen had sought unsuccessfully to discuss the panel’s future with the President or his aides. The White House spokesman said no decisions have been made on what the Administration will recommend.

“There’s certainly no consensus here, except that the debate could be contentious,” the Judiciary Committee aide said.

Congressional Democrats joined rights advocates in criticizing the direction the commission took during the Reagan Administration, which gained a majority on the panel after a protracted battle with the Congress.

The critics argued that the panel had become a mouthpiece for the Administration and had abandoned its role as “the nation’s conscience” on civil rights.

With the added incentive of a 1986 General Accounting Office study that found irregularities in the commission’s personnel practices and financial management, the Congress threatened to cut off its funding. Instead, lawmakers slashed its $12-million budget roughly in half and have refused subsequent requests to raise the funding level.

Reagan appointees on the commission, meanwhile, have contended that its opponents are merely angry because the panel is no longer an outlet for their opinions.

The civil-rights commission has published a number of studies dealing with education issues, particularly desegregation. Its most recent work in the field is a report, released in 1987, that concluded that desegregation plans had successfully integrated American schools, despite a decline in white enrollment that was exacerbated in some districts by such plans.

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 1989 edition of Education Week as Troubled Civil-Rights Panel Faces Uncertain Future