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.

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