Why the Senate Judiciary Committee Was Right to Reject the Confirmation of Charles W. Pickering, Sr. to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Pickering and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission

One of the important civil rights issues that had been raised at Pickering’s confirmation hearings in connection with his service as a state Senator concerned the notorious Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. The Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded agency, was created not long after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education in order to resist desegregation, and was empowered to act as necessary to protect the “sovereignty” of the state of Mississippi from the federal government. The Commission infiltrated and spied on civil rights and labor organizations and reported on their activities. It compiled dossiers on civil rights activists and used the information to obstruct their activities. The Commission existed until 1977, when the state legislature voted to abolish it and to seal its records for 50 years. Pickering, who was a state Senator at the time, voted in favor of sealing the records, stating at his confirmation hearings that the choice was to seal or destroy them.

The Senate Judiciary Committee first asked Pickering about the Sovereignty Commission at his 1990 confirmation hearing in connection with his nomination to be a federal district court judge. At that time, Pickering testified that “I never had any contact with that agency and I had disagreement with the purposes and the methods and some of the approaches that they took. . . I never had any contact with the Sovereignty Commission.” He further testified, pertaining to the time during which he served in the state Senate before the abolition of the Commission (1972-1978), that “this commission had, in effect, been abolished for a number of years. During the entire time that I was in the State Senate, I do not recall really of [sic] that commission doing anything. It already was de facto abolished. It was just not functioning.” Pickering stated that “I know very little about what is in those [Commission] records. In fact, the only thing I know is what I read in the newspapers.” PFAW Report at 9-10.

In fact, as a state Senator, Pickering voted in 1972 and 1973 to appropriate money “to defray the expenses of” the Sovereignty Commission. These votes suggest not only that the Commission was still active at that time, but also that Pickering was familiar with and supported its activities, at least enough to vote in favor of appropriating state monies to fund them. Moreover, according to a 1972 Commission memorandum publicly released only in the past few years as a result of a court order unsealing the Commission’s records, Pickering and two other state legislators were “very interested” in an on-going Commission investigation into union activity that had resulted in a strike against a large employer in Laurel, Pickering’s home town. Also according to the same Commission memorandum, Pickering and the other legislators had “requested to be advised of developments” concerning the union investigation, and had requested background information on the union leader. PFAW Report at 10.

This discrepancy between the documentary evidence and Pickering’s 1990 sworn disclaimer of “any contact” with the Sovereignty Commission and his description of it as “just not functioning” during the time when he was in the state Senate was and remains extremely disturbing, and Pickering was specifically questioned about it at his confirmation hearing on Feb. 7, 2002. At that hearing, Pickering in his opening statement described his 1972 and 1973 votes to appropriate money for the Commission as “practical politics” and further testified that it was his understanding that “the Commission still had some old employees, but its days of high-profile investigations were long over,” an assertion that seems inconsistent with the 1972 Commission memorandum regarding the on-going investigation in Pickering’s home town. In addition, confronted with that 1972 Commission document that conflicts not only with his 1990 denial of contact with the Sovereignty Commission but also with his professed lack of knowledge about the Commission, Pickering suggested at his Feb. 7, 2002 hearing that he was worried about Ku Klux Klan attempts to infiltrate the union. The Sovereignty Commission, however, worked to infiltrate and spy on civil rights organizations and to obstruct desegregation, hardly the group to turn to if concerned about the Klan, as Senator Durbin observed at the February 7 hearing.

Moreover, the Commission memorandum itself, which Pickering read before the hearing in order to refresh his recollection, contains no foundation for the suggestion that Pickering’s request had anything to do with the Klan. To the contrary, it states that the request from Pickering and the other legislators was to be “advised of developments in connection with SCEF [Southern Conference Educational Fund] infiltration of GPA [Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association] and full background on James Simmons [President of the GPA].” The SCEF was a pro-civil rights group.11

Judge Pickering appears to have been less than forthcoming with the Judiciary Committee about this entire matter. The concern here is not only Pickering’s involvement as a state Senator with Mississippi’s segregationist past, but also how he responded when asked under oath by the Judiciary Committee about this matter, not just in his 1990 testimony but particularly in 2002 when he had the pertinent documentary material to refresh his recollection. Pickering’s testimony concerning the Sovereignty Commission prompted one columnist to write that “Pickering’s habit of whitewashing his past conduct has led him perilously close to lying under oath.” Joe Conason, Joe Conason’s Journal, “Still Burning,” Salon.com (Jan. 9, 2003).



11  In his response to written questions submitted by Senator Kennedy after the hearing, Judge Pickering stated that he had mentioned the Klan at his hearing because there had been a strike five years earlier at the same plant by a different union, one that the Klan had infiltrated. Responses of Charles W. Pickering, Sr. to Written Follow-up Questions of Senator Edward M. Kennedy (Mar. 5, 2002), Ans. 1A. Nevertheless, Judge Pickering had specifically reviewed the 1972 Commission memorandum identifying the SCEF prior to his February 7, 2002 hearing.

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