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Charles Pickering: A man of great honor and courage

By John A. Nowacki
web posted October 6, 2003

Charles PickeringLongtime Bush judicial nominee Charles Pickering finally made it out of the Judiciary Committee last Thursday, after waiting nearly two and a half years and enduring one of the worst campaigns of character assassination waged by the left-wing borking squad.

Despite decades of working toward racial reconciliation, the Mississippi native and federal district judge found himself branded a racist by liberal interest groups and the Democrat senators who look to them for their marching orders. He was defeated in a party-line committee vote early last year even though he had votes for confirmation in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Last year's blatant refusal by the Judiciary Committee's Gang of Ten to give his record a fair review led President Bush to renominate him to the Fifth Circuit in January, and while the threat of a filibuster has loomed over him since then, Senator Orrin Hatch - the current committee chairman - had no reservations about bringing him up for another committee vote.

That 10-9 vote came as no surprise, and the hard-line Democrats on the committee stuck with their long-since discredited arguments against Pickering from last year when they tried to keep the full Senate from voting. Republicans, for their part, set the record straight, and no one on that side made a greater impression than South Carolina's junior Senator, Lindsey Graham.

Graham addressed the charge of racism by reminding the committee that in the case most often used by the Left, Judge Pickering's desire to see the defendant receive a sentence that reflected his degree of culpability in a cross burning (when the government barely punished the ringleader - who had previously shot at the victims' house -- and another of the criminals) was about justice, not about race. Even the prosecutor acknowledged the government's sentencing request was "draconian," and when he handed down the eventual sentence, Pickering was harsh in his condemnation of the defendant's racist act.

But Graham didn't just limit himself to setting the facts straight.

"The truth is that the man has been under siege for a couple of years now, and I can only imagine what he and his family have went through; this is total hell," he said. "There's nothing worse you can say about somebody other than that they're a racist. And there's nothing worse you can say about a southern white person than that they're a racist. We have to deal with that all the time, and it's our own fault to a certain extent."

"In my state," he went on, "we're a long way from South Carolina being the way it should be . . . so I don't want anyone to leave this room today thinking that we've fixed our racial problems in the South. We have not. But I tell you, you need to look at your own states and see if you've fixed them in your state. There's a long way to go, and beating on this good man is not going to make us a better nation."

Graham went on to say Pickering's opponents "can't kindly and dispassionately ruin somebody's life."

"There is a pattern going on by my friends on the other side of the aisle. . . . This is political payback" for President Bush, being engineered by Senators who think they helped him too much early on with issues like the tax cut, Graham said.

Graham was equally outspoken about the consequences of the judicial obstruction campaign. "If you think that people on my side of the aisle when there's a Democratic president are going to sit back and not do the same thing, that's just naïve of you," he said sharply. "And where do we go? Have we ever filibustered judges on the floor of the Senate? No! We have never done that, this is a first."

Graham then read to the committee a statement from Senator Patrick Leahy, the leading Democrat on the committee. On June 18, 1998, Graham reminded Leahy, the ranking member said that he would object and fight against any filibuster on any judge, whether Leahy supported or opposed the nominee. Leahy sat impassively as Graham read the lengthy floor statement.

"The reason we're here is because you all have chosen a handful of nominees . . . and you've used the tactic of stopping them from having a vote up or down on the floor," Graham continued. "And we will respond in the future. And the country will be the great loser."

Addressing the need to give nominees like Pickering a fair up-or-down vote, Graham grew more impassioned. "Sen. Schumer said let the fight begin . . . the fight has begun. And the fight must be taken to its logical conclusion. We need to break these filibusters, and we need to bring reason back to the table. And we need to stop taking good men and women who are well-qualified by the bar association and saying that they're racists when there's really no reason to believe that. . . . Why is a racist well qualified in the eyes of the American Bar Association?"

"Talk about being reversed. His reversal rate is lower than the national and the Fifth Circuit average. We can take comments by anybody . . . and create an image that we would like. That's politics. And quite frankly, I have been guilty of doing that myself. And it's easy to do. And I wish it would stop."

After apologizing to the nominee's son, Rep. Chip Pickering of Mississippi
-- who was in the audience -- for what members had said about Pickering, Graham turned his attention back to his colleagues and in an emotional voice quietly reminded them of the nominee's real record on race:

"Do you know what it must have been like in the 1960s . . . to get up on the stand and testify against the Ku Klux Klan? Do you have any idea what courage it took? Shame on you."

As two highly qualified nominees undergo partisan filibusters, and others like Judge Pickering appear poised to join them, the need to break those filibusters and let the Senate do its constitutional duty becomes more urgent. Those Senators who are dubious about efforts to reform the process or take steps toward a vote would do well to listen to Senator Graham.

John A. Nowacki is Director of Legal Policy of the Free Congress Foundation.

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