Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson says it’s like this: If judicial nominee Charles Pickering is confirmed by a Democratic Senate, the Bush Administration will have a green light to pack the federal courts with judges openly hostile to basic principles of equal justice under the law. “It amazes me that in 2002 a man who has a questionable record of support for ‘one man, one vote’ is seriously considered for a federal appeals court judgeship–but that’s what we’ve got with Charles Pickering,” Thompson says of the Mississippi federal judge nominated by Bush to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. “If he is confirmed, the message will be that there are no expectations left, no standards for selecting judges.”
Harsh words, especially from a judicial nominee’s home-state representative. But the Pickering nomination has inspired the sharpest debate yet regarding the President’s judicial nominees. Republican Senator Arlen Specter says Pickering displays “a curious ambivalence” about using the court to protect voting rights, while NAACP board chair Julian Bond says “a vote for Pickering is a vote against civil rights.” That’s a particularly dramatic charge regarding a nominee to the Fifth Circuit, which oversees civil rights protections in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, and has the highest percentage of African-Americans of any circuit.
The Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP and the predominantly black Magnolia Bar Association are working to block Pickering’s nomination. “We hope to God that he doesn’t make it,” explains L.A. Warren, chair of the state NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee. “We know his past.” As a law student, Pickering penned a 1959 law review article that showed legislators how to tighten Mississippi’s ban on interracial marriage. In the 1960s Pickering established a law practice with one of the state’s most outspoken segregationists. He joined white business elites in his hometown of Laurel in opposing the worst excesses of the local Ku Klux Klan, but he also signed an open letter declaring he was working along more genteel lines to maintain “our Southern way of life.” As a state senator in the 1970s, Pickering repeatedly advocated election “reforms” that the Justice Department knocked down as assaults on African-American empowerment, and he supported funding the notorious Mississippi Sovereignty Commission’s efforts to block desegregation. As a federal judge since 1990, Pickering has described the “one person, one vote” principle as “obtrusive,” attacked moves to draw legislative districts that could be won by African-American candidates as “polarization” and repeatedly attempted to limit application of Voting Rights Act provisions in Mississippi. In lawsuits before him involving racial discrimination in the workplace, Pickering has griped that courts “are not super personnel managers charged with second-guessing every employment decision regarding minorities.”
At least eleven of the two dozen Pickering decisions overturned by the Fifth Circuit were rejected for violating well-settled principles of law involving civil rights, civil liberties, criminal procedures and labor rights. In 1994 Pickering intervened with the Justice Department to try to get the government to soften charges against a man who had burned an eight-foot cross outside the home of an interracial couple, claiming the defendant had merely engaged in a “drunken prank.”
After Pickering stumbled badly in Judiciary Committee hearings–which raised ethics concerns about his role in the cross-burning case, his solicitation of letters of recommendation from lawyers and groups that might face his court, and his deceitful testimony about his ties to the Sovereignty Commission–his nomination was in trouble. But it was revived by conservative groups, which recognize that confirmation of such a nominee would ease the way for later Bush picks, and by antiabortion activists who have championed Pickering since he led the fight at the 1976 Republican National Convention for a platform opposing reproductive freedom. Pickering has a powerful ally in Senate minority leader Trent Lott, who says conservative Southern Democrats will help him confirm Pickering if a full Senate vote is scheduled. Lott charges that Pickering is the victim of a “smear” campaign.
That spin was aided by a New York Times article asserting that the African-Americans who know Pickering best “admire his efforts at racial reconciliation” and “overwhelmingly” support his nomination. Based only on interviews with African-American residents of Laurel, the Times article claimed that a disconnect between national groups’ opposition to Pickering and Mississippi blacks’ support for him “reflects the distance between national liberal groups and many Southern blacks in small towns.” Newspapers with a better sense of the South dismissed this view; the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialized, “US jurisprudence came too far in the late 20th century to allow it to lapse back into a time when Pickering’s prejudices reigned.” But the claim that critics have focused unfairly on Pickering’s record on race was picked up by conservative newspapers. The Wall Street Journal highlighted a pro-Pickering column by Mississippi’s most prominent black Republican, Charles Evers, and the Washington Times wrote, “Liberal organizations have tried to label Judge Pickering as a racist, but black leaders in Mississippi are vocally backing the nominee as a friend of their community.”
In fact, it was Mississippi blacks who first raised the alarm about Pickering’s nomination. “I wish the New York Times would ask people like me what we think of Charles Pickering,” says Kathy Egland, who joined the 1960s civil rights movement in Hattiesburg at the age of 10. “I have been involved in civil rights in Mississippi for forty years, and I’ll tell you this: No one in the Mississippi NAACP who knows this man’s record is saying that he has ever been a supporter of civil rights.”