Equity & Diversity

Will the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Change Course?

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 15, 2011 3 min read
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The composition of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has changed, and thus the issues it decides to focus on could also change. The terms of four of the eight commissioners expired in December, and, since then, President Obama and the U.S. Congress have appointed three new commissioners.

Gone from the commission are its recent chairman, Gerald A. Reynolds, a Republican; Arlan Melendez, a Democrat; and Ashley L. Taylor, a Republican. Michael Yaki, a Democrat, also left the commission when his term ended, but he is expected to be reappointed to the one seat that is still vacant, according to the acting chairwoman of the commission, Abigail Thernstrom, who is a Republican and adjunct scholar for the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

The new commissioners are all Democrats: Dina Titus, a former U.S. congresswoman from Nevada; Martin R. Castro, a lawyer and Latino community advocate; and Roberta Achtenberg, who was a senior adviser to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration.

Because of Castro’s appointment, I’m guessing we might soon hear more from the commission in its new form about the civil rights of immigrants. Castro is a former national board member of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Before he became a commissioner, in fact, Castro stepped up to a microphone during a Q & A time at a national conference hosted by the commission last September and criticized the conference for having “an amazing lack of Latinos on panels.” He then also asked panelists if they supported the DREAM Act.

Last Friday, the commission held its first meeting since the new commissioners were appointed, which included a briefing on the U.S. Department of Education’s new focus on “disparate-impact analysis” in enforcement of civil rights in school discipline. See the story I wrote about that briefing just posted at EdWeek.

In an interview with me last Friday, Thernstrom noted that the current mix of the commission is now three Democrats and four conservatives (two Republicans and two Independents), which represents a rather dramatic switch from its recent composition of having six conservatives and two Democrats. Thernstrom also reminded me that when she joined the commission in 2001, it had six Democrats and two conservatives.

While Thernstrom characterized herself to me as a conservative, in fact, she has recently voted consistently with the Democrats.

At last Friday’s business meeting, the commissioners did not discuss or choose any new topics to explore; it’s a rather arduous process, I learned, to infuse new topics into their agenda, involving the writing of concept papers and the like.

But the commissioners did vote on several motions that could give the commission a chance to develop and create new topics for analysis. The commission voted to end its investigation of the New Black Panther Party. A report on that investigation will be forthcoming. The commission voted to suspend work as well on a project involving the legal doctrine of cy pres. Lastly, the commission postponed a briefing examining the legal concept of eminent domain scheduled for March 11, deciding that the briefing on that topic should occur within the next six months, unless a majority of the commissioners vote to kill the topic. I won’t elaborate on what these topics mean at this point, because I think it’s beyond the scope of this blog.

For more about the politics surrounding what topics the commission has pursued in the past, such as an investigation of the New Black Panther Party, read this Washington Post analysis published in September.

The early work of the commission laid the foundation for landmark civil rights legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.