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Commission on Civil Rights

COMMISSION ON CIVIL RIGHTS

The federal Commission on Civil Rights evaluates civil rights laws and policies of the U.S. government, follows legal developments regarding discrimination, investigates allegations that U.S. citizens are being denied their civil rights, and evaluates equal opportunity programs. It collects and monitors information on discrimination or the denial of equal protection of the laws on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, handicap, or national origin. It also investigates equality of opportunity in voting, education, employment, transportation, housing, and the administration of justice.

The commission holds public hearings, publishes findings and reports, and maintains a toll-free phone line by which people may make complaints regarding civil rights. The commission disseminates the information it gathers but cannot enforce existing civil rights laws. It offers its findings and makes recommendations to the president and to Congress. Many of the commission's recommendations have been incorporated into laws, executive orders, and regulations. The commission also collects and stores civil rights information gathered from around the United States.

The Commission on Civil Rights was created by the civil rights act of 1957, and it was later reestablished by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Act of 1983 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1975 et seq.). It maintains six regional offices and is headed by eight members, or commissioners, of whom no more than four shall come from any one political party. Members serve for three or six years. Four members of the commission are appointed by the president, two by the president pro tempore of the Senate, and two by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The president designates a chairperson and vice chairperson from among the commission's members.

From the beginning, the Commission on Civil Rights has interjected itself in controversy. It has investigated activities ranging from discrimination to hate crimes. Because appointments to the commission are political, its tone often swings from the right to the left, depending on who is president. During the 1980s, it issued opinions that were so conservative that some congressional Democrats wanted to shut it down. In contrast, during the 1990s, under the leadership of its outspoken chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, it tilted toward the left.

The commissions most controversial recent action was its investigation into the 2000 presidential election in Florida. After a six-month investigation, the commission issued a report claiming that Florida's conduct of this election was marked by "injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency." The report claimed that minority voters were disenfranchised through unequal access to voting equipment and overzealous efforts to purge state voter lists of felons and other ineligible voters. It recommended that the justice department initiate litigation to correct this discrimination.

The four commissioners who backed the report were all Democrats or otherwise considered liberal. Two Republican commissioners issued a dissenting report, stating that the Florida election problems were hampered by unintentional and unanticipated problems that were not motivated by racial bias and that did not disenfranchise minority voters. The dissent cited a study that low income and literacy rates were more likely than race to explain the number of ballots rejected in certain neighborhoods. In addition to the dissenters, Florida's Republican governor and secretary of state denounced the commission's findings.

Lost in the controversy over whether the commission's finding of bias in the Florida 2000 presidential election was itself biased were some non-controversial recommendations of the commission. These included better training for poll-workers, upgraded voting equipment that would be consistently used, and better resource allocation for voting education. Some of the commission's recommendations were later adopted by Florida for the 2002 election cycle.

The fact that appointees to the commission are political has meant that the appointment process to the commission itself has become political at times. For example, in 1993, Republicans refused to confirm a Democratic appointee for the chair of the commission. In 2002, a Republican appointee to the commission had to go to court before he could take his seat on the commission.

Nevertheless, the Commission had remained in existence for almost 50 years, and has made valuable contributions to America's civil rights debate in that period. Its web site, <www.usccr.gov>, gives important information on how to enforce federal civil rights laws, and different state civil rights organizations. As long as it exists, the commission will probably stir up controversy, but ideally it will continue to educate and enlighten about civil rights issues as well.

further readings

Carlson, Peter. 2002. "Uncivil Fights; The Commissioners Have a Job to Do. But First, They Have to Agree to Meet." Washington Post (October 30).

U.S. Government Manual Web site. Available online at <www.gpoaccess.gov/gmanual> (accessed November 10, 2003).

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. 2001. Voting Irregularities in Florida During the 2000 Presidential Election. Available online at <www.usccr.gov/pubs/vote2000/report/main.htm>.

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