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History lesson

Failure to cut a deal may have doomed previous court nominees

Issue: "Judicial filibuster deal," June 4, 2005

Smear tactics are a now familiar feature against White House federal court nominees. They were used against Judge Charles Pickering, a white, male, conservative Southern Baptist who was also a leader in civil rights and racial reconciliation in his home state of Mississippi (see "Pickled Pickering," May 14, 2005). But in the back rooms, two deals offered by Democrats to confirm Mr. Pickering show that horse-trading is also part of the process.

What Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) called a "smokescreen" emerged in October 2001, just prior to Judge Pickering's first confirmation hearing, when minority lobbies joined radical feminists in a choreographed attack on Mr. Pickering. The Congressional Black Caucus, the Magnolia Bar Association-a Mississippi-based black lawyers' group-and the Mississippi NAACP all attacked the judge's nomination, using rhetoric borrowed from People for the American Way. During the hail of rhetoric, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a key member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP, set up a meeting with Mr. Pickering.

They met at a rural Mississippi restaurant in a private room. "I had a glass of tea and Congressman Thompson had a cup of coffee," Judge Pickering noted in his private journal, and they discussed a mutual love of rabbit hunting and good rabbit dogs. He told Rep. Thompson of how he had long opposed racism and sought racial reconciliation. He detailed his testimony in the 1960s against Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

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According to Mr. Pickering, Mr. Thompson claimed to control the votes of three Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee via his standing with the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP: "We had a very cordial conversation," said Mr. Pickering. "He conveyed to me, 'I can go back and tell them'-I'm assuming he was talking about the Congressional Black Caucus-'that you are a good man, but that's not enough. We need something.'"

The something was other judges. Mr. Pickering mentioned a number of African-Americans qualified to replace him as district court judge, but added he could not be involved in the political process or make any assurances. When Mr. Thompson sought assurances from GOP leaders that an African-American of his choice would be named to replace Mr. Pickering, he apparently was turned aside and decided not to withdraw his public opposition to the Pickering nomination. Mr. Thompson did not reply to WORLD's efforts to contact him to verify the account.

At the same time, Mr. Pickering's son, Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), was engaged in his own political fight. After the 2000 census, Mississippi had lost a congressional seat and Rep. Pickering's 3rd District was to merge with Democratic Rep. Ronnie Show's 4th District. State GOP and Democratic leaders battled over redrawing the new combined district. Judge Pickering wrote of his son's battle: "We both had our own problems to deal with."

But when a three-judge federal panel adopted a plan perceived favorable to Republicans, Mr. Thompson promptly held a press conference on Feb. 6, 2002, to denounce not only redistricting but also the elder Pickering-and in essence to intimidate black Mississippians who supported him. "Jesus had 12 disciples; one of them betrayed him," Mr. Thompson said at the news conference. "I'm sure there's a Judas who will come up and support him." At the time, U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate, a former member of the NAACP, endorsed Mr. Pickering. In a letter of support he described him as "a committed Christian who recognizes that racism is incompatible with God's law, who recognizes that racism is destructive and contrary to the lofty principles of our beloved Constitution."

With Mr. Pickering's second confirmation hearing set for the following day, Feb. 7, 2002, a flood of letters affirming his leadership in Mississippi racial issues swamped the Senate Judiciary Committee. One, a letter from civil-rights activist Charles Evers-brother of civil-rights martyr Medgar Evers and Mississippi's first black mayor since Reconstruction-stated, "I have been saddened and appalled to read many of the allegations . . . mostly made by groups with a Washington, D.C., address and a political agenda, not by anyone with real knowledge of Mr. Pickering's long and distinguished record on civil rights. . . . I could not sit by and watch these groups' attempts to destroy a good man."

But on Capitol Hill the Congressional Black Caucus had spoken. Democrats at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, led by then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.)-possibly posturing for his presidential campaign-skewered Mr. Pickering.

Eight statewide elected Democratic officials in Mississippi, including the governor and lieutenant governor, sent a letter of support for Mr. Pickering, as did two previous Mississippi governors and two previous lieutenant governors-all Democrats. But the vote for cloture failed, and Mr. Pickering never received an up-or-down vote in the Senate. - Joe Maxwell


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