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Unspinning the Pickering Push | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Unspinning the Pickering Push

Supporters of Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering's nomination to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals -- which is expected to be blocked this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee -- claim that he is the victim of a "liberal lynching." The spin says Pickering is a supporter of racial reconciliation who is supported by southern blacks but opposed by northern liberals. The truth is that Pickering has drawn more opposition from his home state and region than any judicial nominee in recent history.

To hear supporters of Pickering tell it, the only barrier to the judge's confirmation to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is a "smear campaign" conducted by a bunch on "damn yankees." In fact, the claim goes, southern blacks are backing Pickering's nomination because they know him to be a consistent supporter of "racial reconciliation."

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there is widespread opposition in Mississippi's African-American community and across the south to the nomination of a man who worked closely with segregationists throughout the 1960s and whose judicial tenure has been characterized by a deeply disturbing antipathy towards the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights protections. But in a Capitol where spin wins more frequently than not, the claim that liberal northerners are at odds with southern blacks when it comes to Pickering -- and the parallel claim that Pickering has been unfairly attacked by liberal activists who do not know his real record on race issues -- has become a central theme of right-wing commentators, Republican senators and Bush White House aides who still hope to salvage the nomination.

Pickering's backers are pulling out all the stops this week because they know his nomination is in serious trouble. For the first time since George W. Bush assumed the presidency, it is likely that one of his judicial nominees will be rejected by a Senate panel. If the ten Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee vote Thursday to block Bush's nomination of Pickering to serve on the Court of Appeals for Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, the Bush administration and Pickering's chief Senate sponsor, Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., will have suffered a rare setback in a Senate where Democrats hold a bare majority but have been slow to challenge even the most conservative of the president's judicial nominees.

To be sure, national civil rights groups have played an important role in challenging the Pickering nomination. Revelations about Pickering's drafting of a memo on how to toughen Mississippi's ban on interracial marriage, his legal partnership with one of that state's leading segregationists, his votes as a Mississippi legislator to undermine Voting Rights Act protections, his ongoing opposition to the one-person, one-vote standard that underpins so much of civil rights law, and his efforts as a judge to get the Justice Department to soften the sentence of a convicted cross burner, as well as his many ethical missteps, have inspired widespread criticism of the nomination. In addition to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Pickering's prospects are opposed by the Society of American Law Teachers, the National Women's Law Center, the Alliance for Justice, People for the American Way, the National Council of Women's Organizations, the National Association of Social Workers, the AFL-CIO and dozens of other Washington-based advocacy groups.

That's what has Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, the most powerful Republican on the Judiciary Committee complaining about how Washington liberals are "lynching" Pickering. Mississippi Republican Charles Evers, a Bush delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention, went even further. "All these so-called liberals are talking about what's good for so-called downtrodden Mississippi," Evers griped during a pro-Pickering news conference on the White House lawn, at which a handful of Pickering's African-American backers showed up. "It's not the NAACP down there (in Mississippi) that opposes Pickering. It's the Yankees up here."

Evers got that one wrong, as NAACP national board chair Julian Bond noted. The Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP is actively opposing Pickering's nomination. So are the state NAACP organizations in Louisiana and Texas -- the other two states that make up the 5th Circuit. "We hope to God that (Pickering) doesn't make it," explains L.A. Warren, chair of the Mississippi NAACP's Legal Redress Committee. "We know his past."

The Magnolia Bar Association, an organization of African-American lawyers in Mississippi, opposes the Pickering nomination. So too does US Rep. Bennie Thompson, the state's only African-American congressman. Thompson has been attacked in Washington and at home in Mississippi by conservative columnists -- especially writers for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, a newspaper with a record as dubious as Pickering's when it comes to segregation fights. The critics claimed that, in opposing Pickering's nomination, the congressman had exposed himself as a pawn of northern liberals who was out of touch with his African-American constituents. These attacks were merely more of the pro-Pickering political spin, however. Last week, 31 African-American members of the Mississippi legislature signed a letter opposing Pickering's nomination.

The truth about the nomination is this: Rarely in the history of clashes over presidential nominations to the federal bench has a nominee faced the sort of homestate and regional opposition that has been directed at Pickering. Far from being a Washington phenomenon, the opposition to Pickering has gained traction because those who have fought southern racism longest -- and those who continue to oppose it with the greatest level of passion and personal commitment -- do not want this man sitting on one of the south's most influential courts. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of the region's largest newspapers, and one of the few daily newspapers in the nation where the editorial pages are run by an African-American woman, summed up enlightened southern sentiment well.

"If judges like Pickering were appointed, American justice would be skewed beyond recognition," argued the Journal Constitution. "If Bush will not withdraw Pickering's nomination, the Senate Judiciary Committee should recommend against his confirmation. U.S. jurisprudence came too far in the late 20th century to allow it to lapse back into a time when Pickering's prejudices reigned."

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