Pride Before the Fall

Cynthia Moothart

It was a stunning show of hubris. An act so offensive it should have been unthinkable. Timed to cause the greatest pain and the deepest outrage.

There is no more blatant a political ploy than slipping a discredited zealot through the backdoor.

But then it was this president. And it did advance his standing among right-wing extremists.

The recess appointment of Charles W. Pickering Sr. to the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals is an attack on civil rights and the progress toward social justice made in the last half-century. Equally odious is the timing — Pickering was implanted on the bench as Americans prepared to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.

You remember Pickering: He’s the federal judge in Mississippi who disapproved of the Voting Rights Act, calling the one-person, one-vote doctrine obtrusive.” And who attempted to force prosecutors to drop charges against a Klansman already convicted of burning a cross in the yard of an interracial couple with a young child.

Civil rights and judicial watchdog groups are rightfully outraged over the appointment, but it should have come as no surprise — after all this is a president who used Supreme Court pals to steal office and paved the road to war with lies.

But Bush’s action, as it seeks to bolster his standing, does pose problems for the party — and suggests a creeping awareness within the White House that he soon could face his political mortality given approval ratings now below 50 percent.

Republicans have spent the last three years condemning Senate Democrats for playing politics with the judicial nomination process, given they blocked six of the president’s most egregious nominees. (In Pickering’s case this happened twice — during the year and a half Democrats held the majority on the Judiciary Committee and again through filibuster after they lost control of the Senate following the elections in 2002.) But such claims have no standing.

Already Bush has appointed 169 judges to lifetime seats on the federal bench and 30 more to federal appellate courts — equal to President Clinton’s total in his first four years in office.

And there simply is no more blatant a political ploy than slipping a discredited zealot through the backdoor and onto the bench, as Bush did in mid-January to galvanize his right-wing base.

Republicans have sought cover by claiming that the White House did nothing more than Bush’s predecessor. With dozens of nominees stalled by Senate Republicans and seeking to end the nation’s longest-standing court vacancy, President Clinton temporarily seated Roger Gregory on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. He was the first African American appointed to the Fourth Circuit, then the federal jurisdiction with the largest black population.

But the depth of Republican hypocrisy is belied by this one fact: With the strong backing of Gregory’s two home senators, Bush officially nominated the former Virginia litigator, who sailed through confirmation on a vote of 93-1. (It’s worth noting that deposed Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was the lone dissenter.)

Pickering will not undo generations of advances in civil rights during the year he has been given to serve. But this cynical political act draws attention to those lifetime apointees who could — and will fuel efforts to unseat their champion.

Remember classical literature. Hubris, such excessive pride and ambition as characterized in Bush’s move, typically lead to the downfall of the hero, in this case the guardian of extremist right-wing causes. Come November, voters will have the opportunity to write the last chapter in this president’s ruin.

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Cynthia Moothart is managing editor for content at In These Times.
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