Columns » Ernest Dumas

The judicial crusade

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If he had been blessed with prophecy, Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher of Christianity, would have recognized Bill Frist, Tom DeLay and their acolytes when he said that men never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it in the name of religion. To get a leg up on the Democrats, the Republican majority leaders turned a historically trivial political dispute into a religious crusade by implying that the Democratic Party was trying to undermine Christianity when its senators sought to block a handful of President Bush’s big-business nominees to federal appeals courts. It is one of the most contemptible exploitations of religious prejudice since the Salem Witch Trials. Even thoughtful Republicans found it revolting. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said making either religion or government the instrument of the other was not healthy for the country. Sen. Mark Pryor, a soft-spoken evangelical Christian who makes some Democrats uncomfortable by sporting his deep religious impulses a little too outwardly, was bothered by the campaign to call the damnation of God down upon Democrats who engaged in filibusters against a few strange judicial appointments. In his weekly telephone conversation with Arkansas reporters, Pryor said he was “disappointed” —the strongest word Pryor ever uses — by the resort to religious attacks. The Family Research Council, which is allied with the Republicans on the whole GOP agenda, had said Democrats were using the filibuster “against people of faith” in the United States. Pryor said it was presumptuous for any group to claim to represent all Christians in America, even all evangelical Christians, of which he was one. Pryor is the kind of guy whose feelings are hurt when someone says he is not a Christian because he will not support the confirmation of a wacky Bush supporter to an appellate court. If he wondered what extremes of bigotry the religion ploy could trigger, Pryor did not have long to wait. Three days later, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette devoted its editorial columns to a screed against him for trying to use his high office to prevent Christians in the United States from “expressing their views at all.” Nothing Pryor said was even remotely recognizable in the editorial, which said the senator seemed to think he was in the old Soviet Union or maybe Mexico or France because he wanted to “censor” Christian expressions of faith. It was the same Mark Pryor who unabashedly says his faith often guides his political decisions and whose car radio dial, a dismayed aide once found, was programmed only to fundamentalist religious stations. Pryor’s state paper now says he’s a tyrant who wants to squash all religious expression in the country. The prevailing Republican strategy is to convince working Americans that the Democratic Party is engaged in a war on Christianity. The Democrat-Gazette, the Arkansas organ for this trope, suggested that Pryor was part of the “the war on religion.” Was it Swift who said we have just enough religion to learn to hate but not enough to love one another? Neither filibusters nor the larger battle over judicial appointments has anything to do with anyone’s religion. Republicans used the filibuster to thwart the Democratic appointment of a chief justice in 1968 and sought to block six of Bill Clinton’s court appointments with filibusters in the 1990s, but now it is an unconstitutional and un-Christian tool. Frist, who supported the Republican filibusters, now says it has never before been used against court appointments. Republican senators used several other parliamentary devices to block scores of Clinton appointees, but now that they control both houses of Congress and every branch of government they have closed off all but the filibuster to Democrats. The immediate issue is Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owens, whom Bush wants to put on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Congress has confirmed 204 Bush judicial appointees but blocked 10, including Owens. Her nomination goes to the Senate this week. Owens was so extreme even on the conservative Texas court that fellow justices often castigated her for ranging far outside either statutory or common law to try to insulate big business, developers or government from little people who had been harmed. Even U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales denounced her dissents when he was on the same court, once as “an unconscionable act of judicial activism.” Here’s an example that should strike home in central Arkansas. In one case, disregarding state law, she put the interests of property owners above the protection of people’s water supply. The conservative justices said her opinion was “nothing more than inflammatory rhetoric.” She aroused ethical concerns even in Texas, where corporate money is lifeblood, by raising huge campaign gifts from corporations and law firms and then refusing to recuse when their cases came before her. Owens endorsed a pro-business political-action committee to help it raise money to influence her decisions and those of her peers on the Supreme Court. If she were in almost any state but Texas her conduct would have been reproved by the official monitor of judicial conduct. And God wants her on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals?

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