By WILL LESTER, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush lost the first round in the legal fight to appoint a conservative lawyer to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The Justice Department, however, promised to continue its efforts to get Cleveland attorney Peter Kirsanow on the commission.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled Monday there are no vacancies on the commission because all commissioners are appointed for six-year terms. The Justice Department argues that the term of Commissioner Victoria Wilson, appointed by then-President Clinton in 2000 to fill the term of the late Judge Leon Higginbotham, expired Nov. 29, 2001.
The judge said the language of a 1994 amendment to the law governing the makeup of the commission says nothing about interim appointments, only that the commissioners serve six-year terms.
"That provision contains no exceptions or qualifications," she said.
The Justice Department said it will appeal the decision immediately.
"The court's interpretation of the civil rights commission's statute has the potential to allow political gamesmanship to occur on what should be a bipartisan, independent commission," said Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock. "We're confident of our legal position and plan to immediately seek an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals."
The case has pitted the White House and the Justice Department against Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, who is often critical of the civil rights record of federal agencies. The appointment of Kirsanow would shift the commission's makeup from a 5-3 split that generally favors Berry to a 4-4 split.
Kirsanow said Monday that he had anticipated another round of legal fights.
"Going into this, we had almost expected that this would ultimately be decided in the Court of Appeals, regardless of what happened at the district court level," Kirsanow said.