Nation Topics - The Courts
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Few of George W. Bush's judicial nominees have generated as much
opposition as has Miguel Estrada.
"Ask for a lawyer immediately upon your arrest," reads the little
informational card the ACLU hands out to citizens.
Democrats, faced with Scalia and Thomas clones, are finally saying: Ideology matters.
In the 39 states that elect appellate judges, politicization of the
bench is growing.
Packing the judiciary with right-wingers like Priscilla Owen.
When the New York City Board of Education called on public schools to
bring back the Pledge of Allegiance in the wake of 9/11, my daughter, a
freshman at Stuyvesant High, thought her big chance to protest had
finally come. Have you thought about what you'll say if you have to
justify not reciting it? I asked. "Sure," she replied. "I'll say,
there's such a thing as the First Amendment, you know--separation of
church and state? I mean, under God? Duh!" Judge Alfred Goodwin
of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, meet my Sophie, future
president of the ACLU if the punk-rock-guitarist plan doesn't work out.
Virtually every politician in the country has issued a press release
deploring Judge Goodwin's ruling that the words "under God" constituted
a coercive endorsement of religion. "Ridiculous!" said the President.
Tom Daschle led the Senate in a stampede to condemn the ruling 99 to 0,
after they recited the pledge together. The Times editorial
expressed the standard liberal line, mingling world-weariness and fear:
"under God" is a trivial matter, so why arouse the wrath of the mad
Christians? You can turn that argument around though--if it's so
trivial, why not do the right, constitutional thing? Let the
nonbelieving babies have their First Amendment bottle! The very fact
that the vast majority of Americans believe in God counts against
inserting expressions of religious faith into civic exercises for
kids--civil liberties are all about protecting unpopular minorities from
being steamrollered by the majority. The history of "under God" is not
very edifying or even very long: It was added to the original
pledge--written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a socialist--by Congress in
1954 as a means "to deny the atheistic and materialistic concept of
communism." If that was the purpose, it worked. The new Evil Ones,
however, have no quarrel with being "under God"; it's the "liberty and
justice for all" they disapprove of. If we really want to drive them
nuts, we should change "under God" to "with equality between men and
women." Or better yet, retire the pledge as an exercise in groupthink
unbefitting a free people.
Something tells me we haven't seen the last classroom invocation of the
divine umbrella--Judge Goodwin has already stayed his own ruling--but
even if the decision is upheld, it's unfortunately the least significant
in a number of recent rulings about education. The Supreme Court
decision upholding the Cleveland school voucher program is a real,
nonsymbolic triumph for organized religion, which stands to reap
millions of dollars in public funds, taken directly from the budgets of
the weakest school systems. Theoretically, your tax dollars can now
support the indoctrination of every crackpot religious idea from
creationism to stoning, with extra credit for attending rallies against
legal abortion and for the retention of "Judea" and "Samaria" as God's
gift to the Jewish people. What happened to e pluribus unum?
(Interestingly, as David Greenberg notes in Slate, e pluribus
unum was replaced as the national motto in 1956 by... In God We
Trust!) And what about that pesky First Amendment? Writing for the 5-4
majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist argues that separation of church and
state is preserved because it is the parent, not the state, who actually
turns the voucher over to the religious school. By the same logic, why
not a health system in which patients get vouchers good for surgery or a
ticket to Lourdes?
The same day brought the Court's decision upholding random drug testing
of students who want to take part in after-school activities. Now
there's a great idea--take the kids who could really use something
productive to do with their afternoons, kids who, whatever mischief
they're up to, actually want to run track or sing in the chorus or work
on the yearbook, and don't let them do it! God forbid some 16-year-old
pothead should get a part in the drama club production of Arsenic and
Old Lace. The harm of the ruling isn't just that kids who do drugs
will now have yet more time on their hands and yet more reason to bond
with their fellow slackers, it's that everyone gets a lesson in
collective humiliation and authoritarianism--stoned or straight, the
principal can make you pee in a cup. Consider too that one-third of
schools now offer abstinence-only sex education, in which kids are told
that contraception doesn't work and having sex before marriage is likely
to be fatal--if the kids don't go to parochial school, apparently,
parochial school comes to them.
The prize for the worst school-related decision, though, has to go to
the panel of New York State appeals court judges that reversed Justice
Leland DeGrasse's brave and noble ruling invalidating the state's school
funding formula, which gives less money per child to New York City
schools despite the fact that city schools have disproportionate numbers
of poor and non-English-speaking children. According to Justice Alfred
Lerner, author of the court's majority opinion, the state is required to
provide its young only the equivalent of a middle-school
education--enough for them to sit on a jury, vote and hold down a menial
job. Anything more is optional and can be distributed at will. (Why not
let kids drop out after eighth grade, you may ask? Well, then they'd
miss abstinence classes and drug tests and reciting the Pledge of
Allegiance!) The world needs workers at the lowest levels, the judge
observes, so let the black and Hispanic kids of New York City be the
hewers of wood and drawers of water and flippers of burgers. Somebody's
got to do it--and it's a safe bet it won't be the judges' children.
Maybe the critical legal theorists are right and the law is merely a
form of words into which can be poured whatever meaning the ruling class
wants it to have. It's hard to understand in any other way the court's
willful misunderstandings of the actual conditions of city public
schools, so that they could respond to plaintiff's evidence of schools
with decades-old outmoded science textbooks by harrumphing that there's
nothing wrong with libraries full of "classics."
Belief in God is not the issue in the continuing brouhaha over the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance. Rather, it's the government's endorsement of a monotheistic God.
As the shock of September 11 fades, courts are standing up for civil
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."
President Bush's first list of nominees to the US Circuit Courts of Appeal, unveiled on May 8, was deceptively conciliatory and seeded with hard-to-oppose minorities and women, stealth conservatives and even a Clinton holdover, Roger Gregory, who has been sitting temporarily on the Fourth Circuit during the stalled appointments process. Gregory, a black lawyer, was a bone tossed to the left, but Bush's list contains enough red-meat conservatives to please his loyal base. Republicans already control eight of the thirteen courts of appeal and could dominate three more if Bush is permitted to fill even some of the current thirty-one vacancies. On the Fourth Circuit, where Republican judges now hold a 7-to-6 majority, and the Fifth, where they maintain a 9-to-5 edge, there are five and three vacancies, respectively.
For the Fourth Circuit, the farthest right of them all, Bush named two judges who should have no problem fitting in. Terrence William Boyle, a federal district judge in North Carolina and former aide to Jesse Helms, is so off the charts that in a recent voting rights case, Hunt v. Cromartie, the Supreme Court slapped him down two times in a row for ruling in favor of white voters trying to weaken black Congressional districts. The other Fourth Circuit nominee, Dennis Shedd, a federal judge in South Carolina, was a top aide to Senator Strom Thurmond. Both men have the support of Jesse Helms, who blocked all Clinton's North Carolina nominees to the Fourth Circuit on the ground that it didn't need any more judges. On the contrary, as a result of Republican obstructionism the federal courts have 100 vacancies and a backlog of 50,000 civil and 48,000 criminal cases at the district level. Now the brakes are off, and the GOP is rushing to pack the Fourth Circuit so it will remain a conservative bastion for years to come.
Two other Bush first-round nominees to the District of Columbia Circuit Court, Miguel Estrada and John Roberts, could shore up the GOP dominance of that body. Estrada is a Honduran immigrant who attended Harvard Law School. At age 39 he'll sit on a circuit with a tradition of promotion to the Supreme Court. Now a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, he has left few footprints on the public record, but he's considered an Antonin Scalia clone. Roberts, a Washington lawyer, represents Toyota in a case challenging the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Among the women on Bush's list, Edith Clement, a federal judge in Louisiana and a member of the conservative Federalist Society, will add little diversity to the conservative Fifth Circuit. Defense lawyers consider her a hanging judge who always sides with prosecutors. And she has a record of "judicial junketeering"--accepting trips from conservative foundations and corporations that purvey a free-market economic philosophy.
For the Sixth Circuit, Bush nominated Jeffrey Sutton, also an active member of the Federalist Society, whose influence permeates the Administration's panel of judge-pickers. Sutton is a leader in the states' rights campaign and successfully argued a recent Supreme Court case that took away the right of disabled workers to sue state governments for discrimination.
The religious right will have a friend on the Tenth Circuit bench if the nomination of Michael McConnell, a University of Chicago-trained professor at the University of Utah College of Law, goes through. McConnell has argued pro-school prayer briefs before the Supreme Court and is antichoice.
The circuit courts are a crucial battleground in the Administration strategy of entrenching conservative policies in this country. As the Rehnquist Court steadily pares its docket--last year it issued only seventy-four signed opinions, compared with 107 in 1991-92--the circuit courts have become mini-Supremes, final arbiters on many important, enduring issues in their districts. Take the Fifth Circuit's drastic restriction of affirmative action in Hopwood v. Texas. The Supreme Court declined review, so that case is now the law in the three states (Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi) that make up the Fifth Circuit. The High Court also let stand the Sixth Circuit's decision in Equality Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, Inc. v. City of Cincinnati, which effectively ignored the Court's holding, in Romer v. Evans, that gays and lesbians may not be excluded from the protection of antidiscrimination laws. Greenville Women's Clinic v. Bryant, in which the Fourth Circuit upheld onerous state licensing requirements--which apply to no other physicians--for abortion providers, still stands.
Much has been made of the need for ideological balance on the Supreme Court, but the argument applies with equal force to the federal circuit courts. Democratic senators should not just play blue-slip politics--vetoing nominees from their state whom they oppose--they should insist on hearings to review the state of the appellate judiciary circuit by circuit. The goal should be an intellectually distinguished bench and, at least, an ideologically balanced one. Nominees should be approved or rejected in this context. Democrats must also demand a full-blown, in-depth examination of each nominee's record (if this is "Borking," make the most of it). Only those candidates should be confirmed who have demonstrated a commitment to protecting the rights of ordinary Americans against powerful institutions, whether government or private, and to our national ideal of civil rights, women's rights and individual liberties; who respect Congress's power to legislate to protect the health and safety of workers, preserve the environment and enforce antitrust law.
Republicans are already crying obstructionism, cynically ignoring their own blockade of centrist Clinton nominees. With the Administration's intentions now on the table, those who will be hurt most by them--minorities, women, working people, the elderly, environmentalists--should launch a missive attack on Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and the nine Judiciary Committee Democrats (who if they stay united have the power to thwart Bush's court-packing scheme) telling them to stand firm. (For information on what you can do, go to www.thenation.com.)
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