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Commission on Civil Rights, United States

Commission on Civil Rights, United States

JUDSON KNIGHT

Established under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the United States Commission on Civil Rights serves in an investigative, fact-finding role with regard to allegations of discrimination or denial of equal protection under the laws. The commission, as it is known, has no enforcement powers, but works closely with the federal, state, and local agencies that have powers of enforcement.

Unlike a number of federal agencies whose upper echelons consist almost exclusively of appointees chosen by the current administration, the commission is designed to be independent. Four of its eight members are appointed by the president, but the presence of persons who would likely be friendly to the administration is counterbalanced in large degree by the other half of the commission, whose members are appointed by Congress.

It is significant that the commission began life at a time when both houses of Congress were dominated by Democrats, while Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, held the White Housean ideal situation for a politically diverse Commission. Though the years since have seen long periods in which Democrats controlled both the executive and legislative branches (196169, 197781, 199395), as well as a brief period in 2001 when Republicans enjoyed the same advantage, differences between White House, Senate, and House leaders have helped to ensure a healthy degree of political diversity on the Commission. Furthermore, its rules hold that no more than four members at any one time shall be of the same political party.

Political independence. Although the president appoints the chairperson and vice-chairperson, one incident from the administration of George W. Bush serves to illustrate the commission's independence from the Chief Executive. The commission ordered a study of the controversial November 2000 balloting in Florida, which resulted in a deadlock between then-Governor Bush and his Democratic opponent, Vice President Albert Gore, Jr. Ultimately the United States Supreme Court declared Bush the victor, but only after five weeks of bitter legal wrangling. The commission concluded in June 2001, by a vote of 62, that the voting in Florida had been characterized by "injustice, ineptitude, and inefficiency" that resulted in the loss of some voting rights by minority participants in the election. The conclusion, which the two dissenting board members described as based on faulty analysis, resulted from findings that minority voters' ballots were more likely to be rejected than those of their white counterparts.

Responsibilities and powers of the commission. The Florida study is an example of the commission fulfilling one aspect of its mandate: investigation of allegations that citizens have been denied their right to vote either by fraudulent practices, or by reason of their race, color, sex, religion, age, disability, or national origin. The commission also studies and compiles information regarding discrimination or denial of equal protection in the administration of justice, or because of race and the other characteristics named previously. It submits reports and recommendations to the White House and Congress, and issues public service announcements designed to discourage discrimination or the denial of equal protection under the law.

The commissioners, who serve six-year terms, meet on a monthly basis, except during August, and meet several other times each year to hold hearings, conferences, consultations, or briefings. In the process of producing documents, the commission can call witnesses and issue subpoenas within a state at which a hearing is held, and within a 100-mile radius of the site of the hearing, whichever is larger. The commission maintains advisory committees at the state level, and refers the many complaints it receives to appropriate federal, state, or local agencies (including ones concerned with law enforcement), as well as private organizations.

The results of commission studies usually see publication, and the commission produces a number of pamphlets on a yearly basis. Among those that appeared in 2002 were Briefing on Civil Rights Issues Facing Muslims and Arab Americans in Minnesota Post-September 11 (the commission also produced a similar study on Wisconsin); Voting Rights in Florida 2002: Briefing Summary; and Haitian Asylum Seekers and U.S. Immigration Policy.

FURTHER READING:

ELECTRONIC:

Civil Rights Commission Approves Report Assailing Florida Vote. Cable News Network. <http://www.cnn.com/2001/ALLPOLITICS/06/08/florida.vote/> (January 29,2003).

United States Commission on Civil Rights. <http://www.usccr.gov> (January 29, 2003).

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