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Jewish World Review March 4, 2002 / 20 Adar, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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The Senate: Advise and disgrace


http://www.NewsandOpinion.com -- WHEN the president sends the Senate Judiciary Committee the names of his nominees for federal judgeships, the Constitution says that the role of the Senate is to "advise and consent." The present Democratic majority of that committee has subjected Bush nominee Judge Charles Pickering to what an indignant Washington Post editorial has accurately called "a degradation of the confirmation process."

For weeks, the NAACP and People for the American Way have led the attack on Pickering -- a federal district judge in Mississippi nominated for elevation to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. They have, as New York Times reporter David Firestone writes, depicted him "as the personification of white Mississippi's oppressive past." When Republicans are the majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee, they, too, have at times amended the Constitution to "advise and disgrace."

As a journalist covering the civil rights movement in the 1950s and since, I greatly admired such civil rights leaders as A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Fred Shuttleworth, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bayard Rustin, organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, who was a friend of mine.

In recent years, however, some current members of that leadership have dissipated the moral force of the movement. For example, Julian Bond, national chairman of the NAACP -- who judiciously accused the president of choosing nominees from "the Taliban wing of the Republican party" -- now says that "a vote for Pickering is a vote against civil rights." And Congressman Robert C. Scott of Virginia -- one of the more thoughtful members of Congress -- claims, along with other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, "it's hard to imagine a person more hostile to civil rights."

During his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Pickering was treated by Democratic questioners as if he and they were back in Mississippi in the 1960s, and as if Charles Pickering is still there, fixed in time. This, not insignificantly, is the man who, in 1967, testified against Sam Bowers, a Klu Klux Klan leader, on trial for the firebombing death of a black civil rights activist.

But the Democratic Senators brushed by that fact, let alone his record in the years since that has made him -- as New York Times reporter David Firestone wrote from Laurel, Pickering's largely black hometown in Mississippi -- "widely admired by blacks" who have known him all these years.

Firestone writes:

"Black business leaders say he was influential in persuading white-owned banks to lend money to black entrepreneurs, helping to strengthen the city's black middle class."

Are these witnesses for Charles Pickering -- many of whom have been in the civil rights trenches all of their lives -- Uncle Toms? Or rather, as Firestone writes, does their witnessing "reflect the distance between national liberal groups and many Southern blacks in small towns" who place more importance on the person they know.

Johnny Magee, a black councilman in Laurel, said, "So many people are still angry about the past. But if the judge has moved beyond his past, I think we should all try to do the same."

But even in 1967, when Pickering was a county attorney -- and was warned by the Klan not to testify against its leader -- he, with two small children, felt impelled to speak up because the black man who was killed, Vernon Dahmers, "was doing nothing more," as Pickering told the senators, "than helping African-Americans obtain their constitutional right to vote."

In its editorial, "The Pickering Nomination," The Washington Post said that Pickering has, since 1990, "been a federal district judge of no particular distinction," and he "would not have been our choice to sit on a federal court of appeals ... But opposing a nominee should not mean destroying him. And the attack on Judge Pickering has become an ugly affair."

I would not have voted for Judge Pickering because, as Sen. Russell Feingold has noted, Pickering asked attorneys who currently practice before his court for letters of support for his nomination. A lawyer who refused to write such a letter could make him and his clients vulnerable. That's a failure of judicial ethics. But the distortion of Pickering's actual history among black citizens in Laurel, Miss. has indeed been "a degradation of the judicial process." Will any of the Democratic senators on the committee say so?



JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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