Senators nix Pickering

WASHINGTON – Leaders of the movement that blocked Judge Charles W. Pickering from a seat on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals hailed the victory but warned that it will be the opening shot of a “full-blown war over judicial nominations” if George W. Bush continues to nominate hardline extremists to the federal bench.

NAACP National President Kweisi Mfume hailed the 10 to 9 party-line vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee Mar. 14 to reject George W. Bush’s nominee despite White House arm twisting and a right-wing smear campaign impugning the patriotism of Pickering’s opponents. Mfume pointed out that Mississippi chapters of the NAACP had spearheaded the movement, inspiring the national organization to “vigorously advocate for the defeat of the Pickering nomination.” Mfume appealed to Bush to abandon his drive to pack the federal courts with right-wingers and, instead, “send the Senate a new nominee whose record and judicial temperament consistently reflect the values of fairness for all Americans.”

Pickering is a sitting judge in the lower courts in Mississippi with a long record of extremist decisions hostile to civil rights and voting rights for African Americans and other people of color. The Fifth Circuit, which includes Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, has a population that is 43 percent African American, Latino and other peoples of color, the highest percentage minority in the nation.

In one case he was hearing, Pickering admonished the federal prosecutor to be lenient with a Klansman convicted of burning a cross in an African-American couple’s yard. He wrote a law journal article urging stricter enforcement of Mississippi’s law against interracial marriages. He led the floor fight at the 1976 GOP convention to align the GOP with the drive to repeal reproductive rights protected in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling.

People for the American Way President Ralph Neas said the Senate vote “is a victory for Americans opposed to right-wing domination of the federal courts,” adding, “the Senate should continue to reject nominees who pose a threat to civil rights protections, reproductive choice, environmental protection and other important constitutional and legal principles.”

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, lauded the Senate vote. “This is just the beginning,” she said. “Women’s rights supporters across the country – and in the Senate – will continue to press for nothing less than judicial justice ... the struggle is far from over. In the past weeks, conservative Republican senators stooped to personal attacks on those who dared oppose the right-wing poster boy. ... Their bullying didn’t work this time and it won’t work next time.”

Moderate Senators, she added, must not permit Bush to “stack the federal courts with right-wing extremists” who will hold lifetime appointments. “We need judges committed to justice for women, not ideologues dedicated to turning back the clock.”

Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said his coalition group of more than 160 civil rights, human rights and labor organizations “strongly believes that the composition of the federal judiciary is a civil rights issue of profound importance to all Americans. ... [T]he federal judiciary must be perceived by the public as an instrument of justice and the individuals selected for this branch must be the embodiment of fairness and impartiality.”

Pickering’s defeat “was the first battle. It is likely just the beginning,” Henderson continued, pointing out that 21 Bush nominations to the federal courts are pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee and three Supreme Court justices have hinted they may retire. “If that comes to pass and the President continues to nominate candidates so far from the mainstream, this nation could be headed toward a full-blown war over judicial nominations,” he warned.