A national coalition of civil rights groups, responding to reports that President Reagan intends to replace four members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, accused him yesterday of attempting to turn the commission into a "political football."
According to published reports, Reagan intends to complete a turnover of the six-member commission by replacing three commissioners appointed by President Carter and one appointed by President Ford. The commission's chairman and vice chairman are Reagan appointees.
However, a White House aide said yesterday that the Ford appointee--Jill S. Ruckelshaus, wife of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus--would retain her commission seat.
Asked about the reports yesterday as he returned to the White House from Camp David, Md., Reagan said, "I can't answer that now."
Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said the reported overhaul "would be challenging the independence and integrity of both the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the United States Senate."
The wholesale turnover would turn the commission "into a political football, something that every previous Republican and Democratic president has refused to do," Neas said. Prior to the Reagan administration, the only time a member of the 26-year-old commission has been removed was in 1972, when President Nixon dismissed the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the University of Notre Dame president critical of Nixon's civil rights policies.
Aides of commission members were quoted yesterday as saying Reagan intends to appoint new members while the Senate is in recess for the Memorial Day holiday, meaning the members could serve for the rest of the year without confirmation. The nominees reportedly would include several who have publicly opposed affirmative action and busing as tools to fight discrimination.
An administration attempt to change the commission's membership failed last year when nominees ran into stiff opposition in the Senate, which sent the names back to the White House at the end of the congressional session.
One of the persons believed to be in line for a commission post, Catholic University law professor Robert Destro, was among the nominees on whom the Senate failed to act last year.
Neas also contended that by making recess appointments, "President Reagan would once again be circumventing, as he did with the Legal Services Corp. board, the Senate's constitutional responsibility to advise and consent on presidential appointments."
Arthur S. Flemming, removed as board chairman in 1981 and replaced with Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., yesterday said such a move would be "consistent with what the administration said a year ago it intended to do."
"When they replaced me, they indicated that they intended to replace all the members . . . ," he said.
Such a move would likely rekindle opposition that forced withdrawal of the administration's first nominee as commission chairman, the Rev. B. Sam Hart. A Philadelphia evangelist, he was criticized by dozens of civil rights groups and members of Congress because of his stands against the Equal Rights Amendment and busing for integration, as well as his statement that he believed homosexuals do not have a civil rights cause.
Jill Ruckelshaus, interviewed yesterday about reports that she might be replaced, said she has not been so informed by anyone in the administration.
Last year, she said, she was not told about being replaced until the day the name of her proposed successor was sent to the Senate.