Thirteen years ago liberals fought to keep Peter Kirsanow off the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a legal brouhaha that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
To say Mr. Kirsanow won that fight would be an understatement. The 61-year-old Cleveland lawyer is now the panel’s longest-serving member, and he’s still causing headaches for liberals and anyone else who would, in his view, run roughshod over the Constitution to pursue a left-wing agenda in the name of civil rights, including those in the Obama administration.
“The Fourteenth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment — you name it — are violated on a daily basis all across the country by people who think you can engage in racial discrimination if you have good intentions,” said Mr. Kirsanow in an interview.
During the Bush presidency, when conservatives controlled the eight-member commission, Mr. Kirsanow confronted such efforts as part of the majority. Last year, however, liberals gained a 6-2 advantage on the panel, meaning that he must often fight his battles alone. Not that he has a problem with that.
“When you’re a black conservative, you’re used to being in the minority,” he quipped.
If anything, being outnumbered has spurred him into overdrive. For months he’s drawn headlines for riding to the defense of constitutional liberties, such as when he challenged Houston Mayor Annise Parker in October over her decision to subpoena pastors’ sermons, calling it “an abuse of government power.”
He warned President Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus that the White House immigration plan would devastate low-skilled workers, a group of Americans that is disproportionately black. He blasted California and the District of Columbia in November for enforcing — illegally, in his opinion — the Affordable Care Act’s abortion mandate.
With the commission planning to hold a hearing on police practices in light of the recent high-profile deaths of unarmed black men, Mr. Kirsanow said he stands ready to use the forum to address “whether changes in police procedures could do anything to reduce the 6,000 to 6,200 blacks murdered each year by other blacks.”
All this may explain why former chair Mary Frances Berry put up enormous resistance to his 2001 nomination to the panel. Or why the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy dubbed him “Attila the Hun,” a nickname that has stuck in part because of his dogged personality and in part because of his dramatic appearance.
It’s safe to say that Mr. Kirsanow stands out in a crowd. At nearly 6-foot-3, he weighs the same as he did when he played wide receiver at Cornell University and boasts a completely bald head, a piercing stare and what may be the most extravagant handlebar mustache since Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.
What’s the story behind the mustache? “It’s something I’ve had since I was in my 20s. I just started growing it when I was in college, and then one day I started twirling it a little bit and said, ‘You know, I’m going to go with it,’” Mr. Kirsanow said.
“My daughter begs me to shave it off,” he added with a laugh. “She says, ‘You’ve got enough challenges in your life.’”
His latest challenge comes with the changing direction of the commission. With the liberal wing in charge, Mr. Kirsanow said he has witnessed a move away from issues that animated the commission during its conservative heyday, including voter fraud and eminent domain abuse, in favor of topics such as illegal immigrant and transgender rights.
“What you lose [with a liberal majority] is a dispassionate look at true civil rights issues,” Mr. Kirsanow said. “Instead, what you see is an agenda-driven take on civil rights. It’s not a matter of looking at whether or not civil rights in this country are being enforced, whether there are deprivations of civil rights — the idea is to expand the concept and definition of civil rights far beyond what our charter is.
“There is kind of a nascent movement to turn the civil rights commission more into a human rights commission that would look at a variety of things not related to traditional notions of civil rights, such as race discrimination and sex discrimination, but rather class-based issues, ideology-driven issues, grievances that the left embraces,” he said.
Losing the conservative majority also effectively brings to an end the commission’s role as an Obama administration watchdog, exemplified by the panel’s investigations into accusations of voter suppression by the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia and the Justice Department’s racially discriminatory enforcement of voting rights laws.
At the same time, Mr. Kirsanow and the panel’s other remaining conservative, University of San Diego School of Law professor Gail Heriot, are not without weapons.
They receive regular requests for help from individuals across the nation alerting them to the behavior of various political bodies, “and they have this instinctive reaction that there’s something wrong with it, but they don’t know what it is,” he said.
“Whenever we see a topic that we think merits the involvement of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights but is not being addressed by the commission, then we will at least send a letter,” Mr. Kirsanow said. “In a number of these cases, it’s clear-cut that they’re engaging in unconstitutional actions, and there’s really no dispute about it. And yet these things occur almost on a daily basis.”
Not surprisingly, he periodically comes under fire from liberal groups. The Wichita NAACP called his 2007 reappointment to the commission “tragic” and “troubling,” citing his opposition to affirmative action and support for school vouchers.
His former conservative colleagues on the commission are quick to come to his defense.
“Peter is very brilliant,” said Abigail Thernstrom, a prominent public intellectual who served on the panel with Mr. Kirsanow for 12 years. “He’s the superstar, as far as I’m concerned. He should have this platform. He cares very much about these issues.”
Former commissioner Todd Gaziano calls Mr. Kirsanow “a great man and a super colleague who is one of the funniest people you’d ever want to work with.”
“He’s also a tenacious defender of principle and reason,” said Mr. Gaziano, now executive director of the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Washington, D.C., office. “One of my primary joys on the commission, which was sometimes a frustrating experience, was working with Pete Kirsanow.”
Mr. Kirsanow’s path to the commission started after college. While some of his teammates went on to play football professionally, he headed home to attend the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. He had always considered himself conservative, but his interest in politics was sparked by his outrage over the 1991 Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
“I saw the manner in which Clarence Thomas was being treated, and I said, ‘The left’s approach to this was despicable [and] contrary to everything I think in terms of due process and justice,’” Mr. Kirsanow recalled. “At that point I just devoted myself to reading as much as I could about what was going on in politics. Prior to this, I was just an ordinary American trying to take care of my family and make a living, and within months of the Clarence Thomas hearings, I think I attended my first National Review Institute summit and became a little bit more politically involved.”
As a labor law expert, he was often asked to testify at congressional hearings. When President George W. Bush nominated him to the civil rights commission, Ms. Berry initially refused to swear him in, arguing the previous commissioner’s term had not expired, and telling Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer that it would take “federal marshals” to seat him, according to The Associated Press.
The Supreme Court upheld his appointment, and he later served a concurrent term on the National Labor Relations Board from 2006 to 2008. While he often finds himself in Washington, home is still Cleveland, where he works as a partner at the law firm Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff and lives in what he describes as one of the city’s bluest neighborhoods.
“In my precinct, when you go to vote and they pull up voter rolls for the primary, my wife and I are the only two Republicans there,” he said with a laugh.
He traces his patriotism to his father, a former lieutenant in the Soviet Red Army who emigrated to the U.S. after escaping from a detention camp. He and others were sent there after being “adjudged to be insufficiently zealous supporters of Stalin and communism,” Mr. Kirsanow said.
That perspective leaves him with little patience for the “constant self-flagellating” of homegrown critics.
“Sure, we have flaws, but you could magnify them by a factor of four or five, and we’re still the greatest nation on Earth, bar none,” Mr. Kirsanow said. “Nobody else comes close, and we would do well to appreciate the fact that, ‘Hey, there are some pretty good things about the United States of America, after all.’”
Despite his seniority, Mr. Kirsanow isn’t going anywhere, having been appointed last year to a third six-year term by House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. Four of the commission’s members are appointed by the president, while the other four are named by the House and Senate majority and minority leaders.
That means voters will need to elect a Republican president if Mr. Kirsanow is to find himself back in the majority. In the meantime, he plans to keep making the most of his backbencher status, which he says actually has its advantages.
“When you are in the majority, you’ve got to think about, ‘OK, what are we going to pursue?’ and you’re being sniped at constantly, and you’re always watching your back,” he said. “When you’re in the minority, it’s somewhat liberating.”