Two holdover Democrats on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission asked for a federal court order yesterday to prevent President Reagan from removing them from office.
Mary Frances Berry and Blandina Cardenas Ramirez charged in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court that Reagan's efforts to fire them without cause were illegal in light of the independent character of the bipartisan commission.
They said Reagan was trying to get rid of them simply because the commission has been critical of the administration civil rights policies and programs. Their lawyers contended that "a long line of Supreme Court decisions clearly establishes that the president has no authority to remove federal officers who were intended by Congress to act independently of executive controls and political interference."
Justice Department lawyers assailed the lawsuit at an emergency hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson. They said it was an "unwarranted attempt to interfere with the president's power to remove Executive Branch officials."
Judge Johnson gave the opposing sides until noon today to see if they could reach a short truce before she rules, probably sometime this week, on the two commissioners' request for a temporary restraining order that would keep them on the job. She scheduled a hearing for Nov. 7 on their petition for a longer-lasting injunction.
Rabbi Murray Saltzman, the third commissioner Reagan fired Tuesday morning, did not join in the lawsuit. A Democrat appointed by President Ford, he said in a telephone interview that he shared his colleagues' fears that the two remaining reports expected to be issued under the commission's name "will be manipulated to put the administration in a favorable light."
But he said that his principal reason for not taking part in the suit was that "the independence and credibility of the commisson have been so subverted and attacked" already "that I don't think it can survive what has happened over the past several months."
Caught up in a five-month dispute over Reagan's determination to replace the three with Democrats more attuned to his views on civil rights, the commission officially went out of business Sept. 30 and is fast approaching extinction. It will, by law, "cease to exist" on Nov. 29 unless Congress passes a new reauthorization bill. Berry and Ramirez, both named by President Carter in 1980, told reporters at a news conference that they were determined to fight to the end as a matter of principle. Berry said they also wanted to complete their work on the commission, including the issuance of the last two reports. She said this could not be done if the firings stick, since the six-member commission would be without a quorum.
"I know what this commission has done for minorities," Ramirez said. "I think what the president has done is fundamentally bad for my country. . . I am outraged . . . I'm angry."
Speaking up for Reagan, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard K. Willard pointed out at the court hearing that the commission was supposed to have issued its final report by Sept. 30. He said that "the commission did submit a final report" and has "no authority" to issue any more during the 60-day wind-down period it has now entered.
Willard disputed contentions that the commission was an "independent agency" and noted that the legislation creating it explicitly makes it part of "the Executive Branch."
He said Congress could restrict the president's removal powers "only by clearly manifesting an intent to do so, and then, only with regard to officials appointed to positions of a quasi-legislative or quasi-judicial nature," such as the Federal Trade Commission.
The NAACP and the Mexican American Legal Defense Funds represented Berry and Ramirez. NAACP Defense Fund lawyer Penda D. Hair said the legislative history behind the periodic authorization bills that have kept the commission going since 1957 make plain that Congress intended it "to exercise independent judgment free from political control."
The commission is purely an advisory body but it has the power to issue subpoenas and take testimony in its job of monitoring the enforcement of civil rights laws and evaluating them for Congress and the president. Hair argued that it is "on the same level" as the FTC, the focus of a landmark 1935 Supreme Court ruling that held President Roosevelt had no authority to fire one of its members simply because they didn't see eye to eye.
As for the Civil Rights Commission's final report, Hair charged that the Reagan-appointed staff director at the agency, Linda Chavez, issued one that the commission did not approve of and that it needs to be redone under commission supervision.