Republicans Threaten Judges. Again.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that federal judicial vacancies are reaching a "crisis point." As it turns out, when Republicans aren't turning to record-setting obstructionism to block President Obama's nominees to the federal bench, they are threatening the "umpires" of the law outright. Just weeks after the Tucson slaughter that claimed the life of circuit judge John Roll, Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg responded to a recent ruling by declaring he wanted to "put some of these judicial activists on the Endangered Species list." Sadly, when it comes to the GOP's now routine practice of judicial intimidation, Rehberg has plenty of company.
After the Citizens United ruling and recent Florida heath care decision championed by the right-wing, it's clear that "judicial activism" is in eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, Rep. Rehberg bemoaned a case in his home state and proposed a solution:
Environmental obstructionists found a federal judge in Missoula that was willing to ignore the scientific evidence as well as the expert opinions of on-the-ground wildlife managers here in Montana. And he ruled last August that the grey wolf had to remain on the Endangered Species List.
When I first heard his decision, like many of you I wanted to take action immediately. I asked: how can we put some of these judicial activists on the Endangered Species List? I am still working on that!
Sadly, many of the leading lights in the Republican Party have it made clear that judicial intimidation is now an acceptable part of conservative discourse and political strategy. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), himself a former Texas Supreme Court Justice, has been at the forefront of GOP advocacy of violence towards members of the bench whose rulings part ways with conservative orthodoxy.
Back in 2005, Cornyn was one of the GOP standard bearers in the conservative fight against so-called "judicial activism" in the wake of the Republicans' disastrous intervention in the Terri Schiavo affair. On April 4th, Cornyn took to the Senate floor to issue a not-too-thinly veiled threat to judges opposing his reactionary agenda. Just days after the murders of judge in Atlanta and another's family members in Chicago, Cornyn offered his endorsement of judicial intimidation:
"I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country...And I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters, on some occasions, where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in, engage in violence."
Facing criticism for his remarks seemingly endorsing right-wing retribution against judges, Cornyn held his ground. "I didn't make the link," he said on Fox News Sunday, adding with a note of sarcasm:
"It was taken out of context. I regret it was taken out of context and misinterpreted."
As it turns out, Cornyn was merely echoing the words of the soon-to-be indicted House Majority Leader Tom Delay. On March 31st, Delay issued a statement regarding the consistent rulings in favor of Michael Schiavo by all federal and state court judges involved:
"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today."
The impact of tacit conservative endorsement of violence against judges cannot be dismissed. After all, it extends to members of the Supreme Court of the United States. In March 2006, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg revealed that she and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor were the targets of death threats. On February 28th, 2005, the marshal of the Court informed O'Connor and Ginsburg of an Internet posting citing their references to international law in Court decisions (a frequent whipping boy of the right) as requiring their assassination:
"This is a huge threat to our Republic and Constitutional freedom...If you are what you say you are, and NOT armchair patriots, then those two justices will not live another week."
Neither O'Connor nor Ginsburg are shy about making the connection between Republican rhetoric of judicial intimidation and the upswing in threats and actual violence against judges. Ginsburg noted that they "fuel the irrational fringe" O'Connor blamed Cornyn and his fellow travelers for "creating a culture" in which violence towards judges is merely another political tactic:
"It gets worse. It doesn't help when a high-profile senator suggests a 'cause-and-effect connection' [between controversial rulings and subsequent acts of violence.]"
When anthrax spores were mailed to the Supreme Court in 2001, Americans could be forgiven for speculating on the ideological persuasion of the culprit. Aided by best-selling conservative author and media personality Ann Coulter, who joked in January 2006, "We need somebody to put rat poisoning in Justice Stevens' creme brulee," the right-wing endorsement of retribution against judges increasingly permeates the culture.
Just ask Judge Reggie Walton. A federal judge on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Walton was picked by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to serve on the FISA court which must approve government requests for domestic electronic surveillance. But when Dick Cheney's chief-of-staff Scooter Libby was convicted in his court in 2007, Judge Walton received death threats:
"I received a number of angry, harassing mean-spirited phone calls and letters. Some of those were wishing bad things on me and my family."
As Denny Rehberg showed once again this week, "judicial activism" is a talking point for losers. (The phrase never passed the lips of Rehberg and his conservative allies when activist courts struck down acts of Congress in the Citizen United and Florida cases.) And when they lose in the court of law, conservatives turn to retribution. While federal judges have lifetime appointments, state supreme court justices like those just recalled in Iowa do not. (For their ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, Iowa conservatives called them "enemies of God" whose ouster was "God's will.") And as Republicans Rehberg, Cornyn and Delay all showed, when push comes to shove, they aren't shy about suggesting it won't end there.