New commission membership stacked against Hawaiians and civil rights
RECENT actions by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights have created controversy both in the media and throughout the civil rights community. Fair-minded people who care about these issues should be concerned. The announcement of a new Hawaii State Advisory Committee (HISAC) that is apparently stacked against the Akaka Bill is just one part of a broader attack on Hawaiians and civil rights by the new commission majority.
Paul Sullivan's commentary "Civil rights commission should reflect Hawaii's diverse views" (Star-Bulletin, July 29) begs for a response. Sullivan uses a quote from the May 2006 Government Accountability Office report in a manner that obscures the government's principal findings. For example, the report's first page states that "the commission's policies do not require that commission reports, briefings, or hearings incorporate balanced, varied and contrasting perspectives in order to ensure objectivity."
The GAO also notes that the commission initiated significant changes in the criteria for membership in state advisory committees (SACs), then "chose to cancel pending applications for renewal until members could be chosen ... (who) reflect the new membership criteria." What did the new commission majority find offensive? Regulatory language requiring that membership in the SACs "shall be reflective of the different ethnic, racial and religious communities within each state, and the membership shall also be representative with respect to sex, political affiliation, age and disability status."
SOUND pretty innocuous? It should. This simple language reflects the underlying purpose of our civil rights laws: ending historical exclusion of nonwhites, ethnic and religious minorities, women and people with disabilities from full participation and equal treatment. Membership of government boards, commissions and committees are commonly balanced by party affiliation. So where's the beef?
The new commission majority pointed to a 1990 administrative instruction that purportedly established a quota on minority membership. (The "quota" straw man is a favored tactic of those who share the new commission majority's agenda, seeking to roll back years of progress by attacking civil rights laws.) However, the regional offices that prepare SAC re-chartering packages explained that the 1990 policy had been ignored for more than a decade. The commission could have simply rejected the already abandoned policy, but instead took the opportunity to push its own agenda.
LIKE THE Bush administration (and the Reagan administration), that agenda includes revamping justice agencies in the commission's own image. The "balance" currently reflected by its eight members includes four Republicans, two Democrats and two Independents. One of the Independents received a prior appointment to the commission as a Republican, and currently serves as its vice chairwoman. The other Independent was a leader of the anti-affirmative action ballot measure in California known as Proposition 209, and is a regular contributor to a Web log called "The Right Coast." This context helps explain the commission's 6-2 vote to approve the new HISAC.
ANOTHER GAO finding states that "although the state advisory committees are considered the 'eyes and ears' of the commission, it has not incorporated the role or work of the committees into its strategic planning and decision-making processes." This has not simply been a matter of benign neglect. This new commission majority has historically paid attention to its "eyes and ears" only when they see and hear what the commission wants to be told.
The commission planned and held its January 2006 Akaka Bill briefing without seeking or obtaining input from the HISAC, whose charter later expired in November 2006. The commission timed its May 2006 Briefing Report for greatest negative impact on the U.S. Senate cloture vote concerning the Akaka Bill. The report relies upon "majority" opposition from a total of just 16 public comments it received. By comparison, HISAC's June 2001 "Reconciliation at a Crossroads" report -- to which the commission made only a passing reference -- drew upon comments from 87 people, even though the commission rejected HISAC's request for statewide hearings or teleconferencing.
In March 2006, HISAC held a forum on "Civil Rights Issues in Hawaii" to address a variety of problems facing our state. Participation was limited to a handful of people, because hardly anyone heard about the event. Why not? After imposing a new requirement that SACs must obtain prior approval for press releases, the commission failed to respond to our timely request for authorization to issue a press release. Cheaper than buying blinders and earplugs for itself, I guess.
FOLLOWING the Star-Bulletin's May 2 article naming Sullivan as a candidate hand-picked by the commission's staff director, I telephoned Paul and shared with him some comments not reported in that article. I explained that my criticisms -- which appear to be in line with those expressed in the Star-Bulletin's July 17 editorial -- were based upon my personal experiences "working with" (and I use that phrase loosely) the new commission majority and its staff director.
Despite our long-standing differences on issues affecting Hawaiians, I expressed to Paul my hope that he would be able to work with the commission more effectively to advance the cause of civil rights in Hawaii generally. Since Paul and I are both Harvard Club of Hawaii members, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his comments concerning the "open-mindedness and intellectual integrity of the committee's membership" were not intended to defame former HISAC members or cast aspersions upon prior HISAC reports.
Unfortunately, based on the framing and spin reflected in Sullivan's July 29 commentary, it appears that the concerns voiced by the Star-Bulletin are more than justified. The commission's own actions reveal that it is less concerned with diversity and balance than it is with promoting an agenda that seeks to roll back our nation's reluctant progress on civil rights issues.
David M. Forman is the past chairman of the Hawaii Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He is a graduate of the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law.