The Scourge of Her Conviction

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

Even her staunchest allies find her tenacity exasperating.

In retrospect, it was probably her persistence that set off the chain of events putting her behind bars. In February 2003, while scanning the New York Law Journal, a short item caught her attention. It announced that President Bush was eyeing Richard Wesley, then a New York Court of Appeals judge, for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where he now sits. The news stunned Sassower, who'd tangled with Wesley before.

In 2002, he and five of his former court colleagues committed what Sassower calls a "willful and deliberate act of deceit": They ruled against a motion to reconsider a civil case that the Center for Judicial Accountability had filed. The group was suing the state's judicial-review board, claiming it amounted to a sham. By quashing the case, Wesley, in Sassower's words, "perpetuated the fraud."

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

She swung into action. First she dialed the office of the Senate Judiciary Committee, relaying that the center "strenuously opposed" the Wesley nomination. Then she sent a two-page letter, requesting the "rules and procedures" for submitting public testimony.

In May 2003, two weeks before Wesley's scheduled confirmation hearing, she trekked to D.C. to visit the committee and her senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, bringing to the office of each a 27-page memorandum that outlined, in meticulous detail, the center's opposition, and six boxes filled with legal briefs.

She heard nothing.

On May 20, 2003, she finally landed a phone conversation, lasting 40 minutes, with two of Clinton's aides. Over the next two days, according to court records, she left two phone messages and sent a fax to Clinton's office.

On May 21, 2003, the records show, the Capitol Police contacted the activist after getting a report from Clinton's office about "a telephone call and fax" from Sassower. She had become such an irritant that the police effectively ordered her to stop calling Clinton's office and cautioned her against speaking out at the hearing on May 22.

Sassower was determined to be heard. "The issues were too important for me not to go down there," she says. Besides, she didn't intend to cause a scene. All she wanted was "to respectfully request to testify."

She arrived at the Dirksen Senate Office Building's room 226, the site of the hearing, and sat in the last row. For two hours, she kept her mouth shut. Only after she heard Senator Saxby Chambliss, of Georgia, who was presiding over the proceedings, bang the gavel and declare, "We will stand adjourned," did she rise from her seat. What happened next remains in dispute.

Sassower admits she read from her statement, asking to testify. But prosecutors claim she yelled over Chambliss. "Judge Wesley, look into the corruption of the New York Appeals Court," they quote her as saying in court documents. "I want to testify." When Chambliss directed police to restore order, the charging papers say Sassower "continued to shout" and "loudly demanded three times, 'Are you directing that I be arrested?' " Prosecutors say she clung to a chair to prevent the officers from escorting her away.

The official version sounds dramatic and disorderly, but a videotape of the hearing—which Sassower admitted into evidence at her trial—corroborates her story. On the tape (linked from her group's website,, Chambliss strikes the gavel and calls the meeting to a close. A faint voice says something about corruption. Chambliss says, "There must be order in the room." Yet there is no ruckus. No protest. Within seconds, the video shows two officers ushering away a calm Sassower.

Watching the video today, Sassower cannot quite shake the absurdity of what has transpired. Amazed, she asks, "How could what I did ever support a disruption of Congress charge?"

That's a good question, since her actions don't fit the profile of a disrupter. Mark Goldstone, the D.C. attorney who advised Sassower on her defense, has spent 20 years representing thousands of activists charged with disrupting Congress. Many got arrested after conducting sit-ins and other protests inside the galleries or the Capitol rotunda. The ones, like Sassower, who attended public hearings really shook things up. They unfurled banners, read petitions, hollered obscenities, blew whistles. In short, he says, "They did all kinds of crazy stuff."

Goldstone figured the U.S. Attorney's office would drop the charges. But it didn't. Spokesperson Channing Phillips says the office weighed the evidence—including the video—and considered it substantial. "We don't make the law," he says. "We just enforce it."

By all accounts, the April 2004 trial, held in D.C. Superior Court, bordered on spectacle. In preparing her defense, Sassower had clashed frequently with the presiding judge, Brian Holeman. She filed gargantuan pre-trial motions that questioned his impartiality and described him as "blind as a bat." More than once, she tried to have the judge removed from the case.

The sparring continued at trial. "Things were pretty out of control," recalls George McDermott, a Maryland activist who attended the proceedings to offer Sassower moral support. On the first day, the judge set the tone by positioning a U.S. marshal to guard Sassower for the duration. To McDermott, the message seemed clear: Say anything, and you'll go to jail.

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