On the first day of hearings on Judge John G. Roberts Jr.’s nomination to Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, before a Russell Senate Office Building Caucus Room overflowing with members of the media and Congressional staffers, with klieg lights shining and flashbulbs popping all around, and with seventeen other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee arrayed beside him, Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn busied himself with a crossword puzzle.
On April 7, five months prior to this hearing, Michael Schwartz, Coburn’s chief of staff, told me, “Tom doesn’t know anything about this judiciary stuff, so I’m feeding him piles and piles of memos every day.” Though Schwartz didn’t specify the nature of his memos to Coburn, I assumed they were made up of primers on legal jargon and history, not word games, puzzles or other such brainteasers.
I met Schwartz outside a downtown Washington hotel, where a gathering of Christian-right activists called “Confronting the Judicial War on Faith” was taking place. In a speech earlier that day, Schwartz told conference attendees he favored “the mass impeachment of judges” and denounced the Supreme Court for giving Americans “the right to commit buggery.” Later, while a think tank researcher and I accompanied him to the Dupont Circle subway station, coincidentally located in the heart of one of America’s most vibrant gay neighborhoods, Schwartz held forth with his vision for the judiciary.
At the very beginning of our conversation, before I could even introduce myself, Schwartz exclaimed, “I’m a radical! I’m a real extremist. I don’t want to impeach judges. I want to impale them!”
Schwartz struck a slightly more even-tempered tone when discussing Senator Arlen Specter, a socially moderate Republican who had become the bete noire of the Christian right since assuming the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. “Specter is the Great Satan, of course,” Schwartz remarked. “But still, I’d rather have him as committee chair than [Utah Republican Senator] Orrin Hatch, because Specter knows how to terrorize the opposition.”
Schwartz expressed dismay over a former colleague, Tom Jipping, who has become one of the Christian right’s point men in the judicial nomination battles. “Tom’s great,” he said, recalling their days together at right-wing think tanks the Free Congress Foundation and Concerned Women for America. “But he’s wrong about judges. He just wants better judges,” Schwartz said mockingly.
So what kind of judges did Schwartz want? Borrowing a common right-wing analogy Roberts would later use in his opening remarks before the Judiciary Committee, I asked him if he wanted judges to behave like umpires, ruling on cases like balls and strikes. “I don’t want umpires,” he declared with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I want to get them out of the way.”
Schwartz’s positions may seem extreme, but they are by no means unique in his political milieu. Schwartz earned high praise at the “Confronting the Judicial War on Faith” conference from Catholic-right activist Austin Ruse for being one of the first organizers for Operation Rescue, the antiabortion group that often employed violent tactics in its vain attempt during the 1980s and ’90s to end the practice of abortion. In 1987, while working at the Free Congress Foundation for right-wing master strategist Paul Weyrich, Schwartz co-wrote Gays, AIDS, and You, a book alleging that homosexuals were “using the AIDS crisis to pursue [their] political agenda.” With his reputation established, Schwartz was tapped as chief of staff by Coburn, a family practitioner/obstetrician and political neophyte elected to the House in 1994.