People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas called on the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject the nomination of Charles W. Pickering, Sr. to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit and released a detailed report documenting Pickering’s troubling public record on a range of critical issues. At a press conference with other progressive leaders, Neas said PFAW and other groups would launch a grassroots effort against Pickering’s nomination, making this the first major judicial confirmation battle of the Bush administration.
“Achieving ideological domination of the federal judiciary is the top goal of right-wing activists inside and outside the Bush administration, and judges like Charles Pickering are the means to that end,” said Neas. “Many of our basic rights and freedoms are at risk. The Senate Judiciary Committee should review Judge Pickering’s record and reject his elevation to the appeals court.”
Neas said Pickering’s record makes him an especially problematic choice for the 5th Circuit, which presides over a three-state area with the largest and most diverse minority population in any Circuit in the country, and which has already decided a number of cases restricting civil and reproductive rights.
The PFAW report released today examines Pickering’s public record both before and after he became a judge. Among the report’s conclusions:
His record demonstrates insensitivity and even hostility toward key principles and remedies that now safeguard civil rights, and indifference toward the problems caused by laws and institutions that have previously created and perpetuated discrimination.
Even conservative appellate court judges have reversed Judge Pickering on a number of occasions for disregarding controlling precedent on constitutional rights and for improperly denying people access to the courts.
He has been a staunch opponent of women’s reproductive rights.
He has demonstrated a disregard for the separation of church and state by repeatedly using his position on the bench to promote involvement in religious programs.
“Elevating Pickering to a powerful appellate court position would give him enormous influence on the interpretation of statutory and constitutional provisions that safeguard the rights of all Americans,” concludes the report.
Neas noted that the report released today is based on an incomplete record of Judge Pickering’s tenure on the District Court, because Pickering has told the Senate Judiciary Committee that approximately 40 percent of his unpublished opinions – as many as 400 – are not available.
“We don’t know what’s in those missing rulings,” said Neas, “but the rulings we do have make it clear that Pickering has opposed basic principles protecting civil rights and has sought to limit their application. He has even denigrated people who have turned to the courts to protect their civil rights.”
Pickering has, for example, criticized the fundamental “one-person, one-vote” principle recognized by the Supreme Court under the Fourteenth Amendment. He has also criticized or sought to limit important remedies provided by the Voting Rights Act.
As a state senator, Pickering supported voting-related measures that helped perpetuate discrimination against African Americans, and voted to appropriate money to fund the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a notorious agency created by the state in 1956 to resist desegregation. At his 1990 confirmation hearing, Pickering testified that he had never had any contact with the Sovereignty Commission. But PFAW’s report notes that a 1972 memorandum by a Commission investigator to its Director stated that “Senator Charles Pickering” and two other state legislators were “very interested” in a Commission investigation into union activity that had resulted in a strike against a large employer in Pickering’s home town.
The report also notes that Pickering did not take the opportunity at his confirmation hearings to repudiate a 1959 article he wrote as a law student advising the state legislature how to fix the state’s law criminalizing interracial marriage in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that had rendered the law unenforceable. The legislature took his advice.
The report also cites specific instances in which Pickering was overturned by the 5th Circuit, to which he has been nominated, for violating “well-settled principles of law” involving constitutional issues, civil rights, criminal procedure or labor issues. For example, the conservative 5th Circuit has reversed Pickering’s misuse of “dismissal with prejudice” – a severe sanction – against an inmate alleging civil rights violations and against a group of plaintiffs in a toxic torts case against a chemical company.
The report documents Pickering’s use of his judicial position to promote religion and religious ministries to those coming before his court. It also documents a decades-long hostility to reproductive choice, including his advocacy of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.
Neas said the grassroots effort to defeat Pickering’s nomination would be the first of many unless President Bush engages in genuine bipartisan dialogue with members of the Senate. Neas urged senators, especially members of the Judiciary Committee, to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities to carefully scrutinize judicial nominees and reject those who have not demonstrated a commitment to upholding civil rights.
“Right-wing senators perpetuated dozens of appeals court vacancies by carrying out an unprecedented ideological blockade against judges nominated by President Clinton,” said Neas. “Now they hope President Bush will take advantage of those vacancies to fill the appeals courts with right-wing nominees like Charles Pickering.”
Neas noted that 35 percent of President Clinton’s appellate court nominees were blocked from 1995-2000; 45 percent failed to receive a vote in the congressional session during which they were nominated. Republican-nominated judges currently hold a majority on seven of the 13 circuit courts of appeal. If all President Bush’s current nominees are approved, such judges will make up a majority on 11 circuit courts. And by the end of 2004, Republican-appointed judges could make up a majority on every one of the 13 circuit courts of appeals.
“A federal judiciary completely dominated by right-wing judges would be a disaster for Americans’ rights and freedoms,” said Neas. “Senators must be willing to say no to Judge Pickering and they must be willing to say no to right-wing efforts to pack the federal judiciary.”