The Scourge of Her Conviction

Activist Elena Sassower annoyed congress, her trial judge, and defenders of free speech—all the way to jail

Two days before Christmas, Elena Sassower walked out of the Washington, D.C., jail where she'd just finished serving a sentence that should frighten anyone inclined to protest in the halls of power.

For reading a 24-word request to testify at a judicial appointment hearing on Capitol Hill, an act that qualified as "disruption of Congress," Sassower was hit with six months' incarceration—the maximum allowed by law. Despite the grave constitutional implications of her case, not one of the dozen civil rights organizations she'd asked for help came to her assistance: not the ACLU, not Public Citizen, not People for the American Way, not Common Cause.

Her real crime, it seems, was her penchant for being a pest. Reached by the Voice, attorneys from three such organizations refused to comment or spoke only off the record. One attorney privately told the Voice that his group's unwillingness to lend Sassower a hand had "nothing to do with the merits of her claims" and "everything to do with her being a very difficult person." Sassower ended up acting as her own lawyer, doing herself no favors in the trial.

Elena Sassower at home with her "silent witnesses"—the boxes of legal documents she brought to her sentencing
photo: Brian Kennedy
Elena Sassower at home with her "silent witnesses"—the boxes of legal documents she brought to her sentencing

In the days before her May 2003 arrest, Sassower had repeatedly called her home state senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, about the confirmation hearing of Judge Richard Wesley, a nominee for the federal appeals circuit. Sassower, of White Plains, had taken the senators a lengthy letter and several boxes containing thousands of pages of legal briefs about Judge Wesley.

A Clinton aide contacted the U.S. Capitol Police, who told Sassower that "continued contact" would be considered harassment and warned her not to attend the Wesley hearing if she intended to disrupt it. According to police reports, Clinton's staff likened her lobbying tactics to "stalking," although the police found that her messages had "a calm and coherent tone" and contained "no threats or harassing language."

Sassower went to the hearing anyway, rising to speak as the chair gaveled the proceeding closed. "Mr. Chairman, there is citizen opposition to Judge Wesley based on his documented corruption as a New York Court of Appeals judge," she read aloud. "May I testify?"

Elena Sassower is that rare kind of activist who presses her issues as if she won't stop—and maybe she can't. She calls, and then follows up with a fax, maybe several faxes. And then she sends e-mail, along with formal letters, multi-page motions, and box after box of documents. As coordinator of the national Center for Judicial Accountability, she has inundated state legislators, oversight agencies, national representatives, the state attorney general's office—anyone and everyone who might listen to her tales of judicial corruption. If she leaves a voice mail and hears nothing back, she just keeps trying. If she talks to you, she may stay on the phone for hours, and if she still goes away unsatisfied, she'll call your supervisor, and that person's supervisor, and so on. "I'm committed and determined," she says. "If nothing comes back, I should be satisfied?"

Jonathan Turley, who teaches constitutional law at George Washington University Law School, finds the Sassower case "extraordinary." Her punishment is unprecedented for a congressional disrupter; it's rare that even raucous outbursts result in charges, let alone jail terms (see sidebar). It also sets up what Turley calls "a worrisome precedent," by which a judge can throw the book at someone simply for expressing political views.

Sassower's sentence means dissidents everywhere will have to think twice before opening their mouths. John Bailey, of the White Plains CitizeNet Reporter, an online news service and one of the few media outlets to write about the implications of the case, sums it up. "Many committed activists are obnoxious and relentless," he says. "Does that mean they should all get six months in jail for speaking out at a Senate hearing?"

At first glance, Sassower, 48, a Hebrew-school teacher from White Plains, seems anything but disruptive. Petite and attractive, she has a bright smile and says "please" and "thank you" almost to excess. Her family and friends paint her as a sincere spiritual leader who lost her two part-time jobs at local synagogues while languishing in jail.

Sassower has dedicated much of her life to judicial reform. In 1989, she and her lawyer mother, Doris, established the Center for Judicial Accountability, which now has several hundred members nationwide. Since then, she has ferreted out corruption on the New York bench, and pressed for public participation in confirmation hearings.

When she talks about issues, her passions take over. She can sound off for hours about the ills of the justice system and the legislative processes that support it, barely stopping to catch her breath. Ask her about judiciary committee hearings, for example. As Sassower talks, she stands and then crouches, her voice growing firmer and louder; she smacks the back of her hand to punctuate her points and offers up countless pages of documentation—each painstakingly researched, with footnotes and cross-references. Just listen:

The dirty secret about federal judicial nominees is that there is no room for public input. Only when you have nominees with extreme political views on either side is there any interest in investigating these nominees. John and Jane Q. Public have no voice in the judicial-selection process and therefore they don't care about what's going on in their own backyard. But they should care. They should want to know about these lifetime appointments that are brokered in political deals, behind closed doors, with no concern for qualifications and no investigation into corruption. People expect this great scrutiny. But the process is a charade, a fraud, and a sham . . .

Next Page »
New York Concert Tickets