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.)
President Bush's power to appoint judges is one he hardly deserves because of the way he achieved his office.
A parody of Gone With the Wind has run into legal trouble: too revealing of the real nature of slavery?
On March 27, a federal district court struck down the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action admissions plan, ruling that the school's interest in a diverse student body did not justify using racial preferences. This past December another court in the same district reached the exact opposite result, finding the university's parallel affirmative action program for undergraduates was justified by diversity.
These diametrically opposed rulings on a single university's affirmative action programs perfectly mirror the current division in the nation's courts. Affirmative action, a near-universal practice in universities across the nation, is under serious legal attack. Disappointed white applicants have sued universities in Georgia, Washington and Texas as well as Michigan.
As in Michigan, the lower courts in these cases have divided sharply, so it is only a matter of time before the none-too-hospitable Supreme Court takes up the issue. The main point of disagreement concerns whether diversity is a sufficiently "compelling interest" to justify race-conscious admissions. There is a strong case for diversity-based affirmative action. But another justification, not generally pressed by the universities, offers a more cogent and morally persuasive rationale for affirmative action: society's interest in integration itself.
Since 1978 affirmative action in higher education has rested on the slimmest of reeds--a lone opinion from a Justice who could not attract a single other Justice to his views. In Board of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a divided Supreme Court struck down a medical school admissions program that set aside a predetermined number of seats for minority applicants. Four Justices deemed any consideration of race illegal under a federal statute that prohibits discrimination by entities receiving federal funds, while another four concluded that the program was a valid response to broad societal discrimination.
The decisive opinion in the Bakke case was that of Justice Lewis Powell. He voted to invalidate the University of California's program, but he also stated that racial preferences are sometimes permissible, citing with approval Harvard's affirmative action program, in which, in the name of diversity, race was considered as one "plus factor" among many, and all applicants competed for all openings. Harvard's program was not even at issue in the case, but Justice Powell's views about it have guided universities ever since.
Subsequent Supreme Court opinions have appeared to diverge from Justice Powell's analysis. For example, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a critical swing vote, explicitly rejected diversity as a justification for an FCC affirmative action program, stating: "Modern equal protection has recognized only one [compelling state] interest: remedying the effects of racial discrimination." The FCC's interest in broadcast diversity, she reasoned, was "simply too amorphous, too insubstantial, and too unrelated to any legitimate basis for employing racial classifications." Her opinion was in dissent, but would probably garner five votes today. In other opinions, however, Justice O'Connor has cited Justice Powell's Bakke opinion with apparent approval.
One thing is certain: The argument for diversity finds virtually universal acceptance in academe. More than 360 higher education institutions signed on to briefs defending the University of Michigan's affirmative action program. And for good reason: In our increasingly diverse society, the ability to communicate and understand across racial lines is an essential part of citizenship, and teaching that skill requires a diverse setting. Not considering race in the diversity mix would effectively penalize minorities by denying them benefits that Iowans, violinists, potential donors' children and synchronized swimmers receive.
The usual response is that the Fourteenth Amendment treats racial classifications differently. But the equal protection clause does not prohibit all consideration of race. In its recent voting rights cases, for example, the Court held that race may be considered as one factor among many in redistricting, as long as it is not the "predominant motive." The redistricting process necessarily considers all sorts of factors as proxies for likely political allegiances, and adding race to the mix does not raise the same concerns as other kinds of race-conscious decision-making. Similarly, the search for diversity necessarily considers many factors as proxies for intellectual and cultural diversity, and race should be permissible as one among many.
Ultimately, however, integration itself may be a stronger justification for affirmative action than diversity. An integrated student body undoubtedly adds to diversity. But so does admitting violinists, and surely there is a stronger argument for admitting African-Americans than violinists. Higher education is one of the few arenas in modern life where racial integration remains a realistic possibility. Despite the demise of Jim Crow, most of us continue to live, work, socialize and worship in effectively segregated settings. College student bodies, by contrast, can be integrated because they are consciously selected and are not predetermined by geography or class. Integration in higher education in turn teaches us that integrated communities are possible, and that living in such communities can break down the deep barriers that continue to divide the races. At the same time, because a college degree is essential to professional success, integration in higher education is necessary to any measure of integration beyond.
The Court and the country have failed to live up to the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. The last thing we should do is turn the Constitution into a barrier to one of the last remaining arenas of true integration in America.
All signs point to an all-out drive by the Bush Administration to slot judicial conservatives into the eighty-nine current vacancies on the federal bench. The recent to-do about ending the American Bar Association's role in screening nominees was a smoke signal to the conservative base that only the "right" kind of judges henceforth need apply. White House counsel Alberto Gonzales grumbled that the ABA, which has been screening nominees since the Eisenhower Administration, "takes public positions on divisive political, legal and social issues." In fact, ABA's screening committees eschew political judgments, instead evaluating the candidates' ethics, competence and judicial temperament.
The real meaning of Gonzales's words is that the Bushites want a free hand to appoint their own ideologues. Conservatives crave revenge for the 1987 Senate rejection of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, whom four members of the ABA's fifteen-member standing committee found "not qualified." This split decision by the usually unanimous committee gave ammunition to Bork's opponents. Gonzales let the word go forth that in selecting nominees he and John Ashcroft will heed the Federalist Society and kindred far-right legal groups whose acolytes honeycomb this Administration.
Bush further heartened his right-wing supporters by blocking Clinton nominees for the bench like Roger Gregory, who had been given an interim appointment to the Fourth Circuit. (He's the first African-American to enter Jesse Helms's segregated preserve.) Meanwhile, other solidly qualified Clinton nominees have been left dangling by the Judiciary Committee, including James Klein, the able DC public defender; Helene White (whose nomination was stalled for more than 1,500 days) and a score of others for whom Senator Orrin Hatch refused to hold hearings.
The Bushites' court-packing drive is a grade-A rush job. For one thing, the roll Bush is on is petering out with his tax plan seen by a wider public as too friendly to the rich. Then, too, if an enfeebled Strom Thurmond exits the stage, control of the Judiciary Committee would shift to the Democrats, and then it's a whole new ball game.
If ever there was a time for mobilizing a counteroffensive, this is it. Bush has no mandate to add more weight to an already rightward-tilting federal bench. The Supreme Court's patently political ruling in Bush v. Gore has shaken its credibility. There is a growing constituency for judicial integrity and against a rollback of individual rights. Public-interest groups are tuning up. Some that will be in the thick of the fight: National Women's Law Center, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the American Way, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (for more information contact Marcia Kuntz at the Alliance for Justice, 202-822-6070; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Progressives must also apply pressure on Democratic senators to stall the Bush drive to stack the bench. Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman's suggestion that no Bush Supreme Court nominees should be approved is on the mark. Democrats should demand the same privilege that Hatch claimed of vetting all lower court nominees before their names become public.
Let's heed the admonition of Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice: "Fight early, fight often and fight to win."
Bush v. Gore may have superficially resolved a short-run political crisis, but it has triggered a deep intellectual crisis.
The judge who chided Bush over aid to children is part of a state tradition.