Pickering makes it to the bench

By Michelle Goldberg
January 17, 2004 4:31AM (UTC)
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With its customary sensitivity, the Bush administration celebrated the upcoming observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., by thwarting Congress and installing a judge on the Federal Court of Appeals who is notorious for his early support of segregation and his ongoing hostility to civil rights law.

Mississippian Charles Pickering is commonly considered among the most right-wing of Bush's extremely conservative judicial nominees. His dismal record on race begins with a law school article he wrote defending anti-miscegenation statutes. In the 1960s, as Sean Wilentz reported in Salon last year, "Pickering worked to support segregation, attack civil rights advocates who sought to end Jim Crow, and back those who opposed national civil rights legislation, above all the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Or, in the words of a public statement he signed in 1967, Pickering wanted to preserve 'our southern way of life,' and he bitterly blamed civil rights workers for stirring up 'turmoil and racial hatred' in the South."


In the 1970s, as a state senator, he voted to appropriate money to the the Sovereignty Commission, a group dedicated to resisting desegregation. (During his confirmation hearing, he claimed that not only did he have nothing to do with the commission, but that it didn't even exist during the years in which records show he voted to fund it.) Later, he dismissed an employment discrimination case by contemptuously noting that courts "are not super personnel managers charged with second guessing every employment decision made regarding minorities." Speaking to the Congressional Black Caucus, Virginia Democratic congressman Robert Scott said of the judge, "It's hard to imagine a person more hostile to civil rights."

And not just black people's civil rights. In speeches, he has said that the Christian Bible is the "absolute authority by which all conduct of man is judged." As People for the American Way points out, a lawyer who has practiced before him once said, "He is the judge who concerns me the most. He's a fine person, but he's almost so pious that it interferes with his assignment as a judge." Not surprisingly, he backs a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.

Keeping Pickering off the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals -- which oversees the largest minority population of any court in America -- has been one of the few real accomplishments of Democrats under the Bush regime. In 2002, when Democrats controlled the Senate, he was rejected by a party line vote of the Judiciary Committee. In January, though, Bush renominated him -- a brazen move, considering it was just a few weeks after the Trent Lott scandal.


Democrats blocked him and other extreme nominees through a filibuster that so enraged Republicans they thought about rewriting the Senate rules. Yet they didn't have to -- on Friday, Bush used a recess appointment to put Pickering on the bench. Recess appointments allow presidents to fill vacancies without Senate confirmation when Congress isn't in session, and last until the next congressional term -- in this case, until January 2005, when Bush evidently hopes to have enough Senate votes to deny the Democrats one of the last tools they have for restraining the GOP.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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