When George W. Bush placed embattled Federal District Judge Charles Pickering on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on January 16 through a temporary recess appointment, the January 24 lead editorial in Newsday proclaimed:
“The most damning strike against Pickering was his decision to intervene with prosecutors in 1994 to gain leniency for a man convicted of burning a cross on a mixed-race couple’s lawn.”
And in the Senate, Ted Kennedy said the recess appointment “serves only to emphasize again this administration’s shameful opposition to civil rights.”
From the beginning of the Senate Democrats’ characterization of Pickering as—to say the least—racially insensitive, the leading denouncer of the judge on the Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor was Charles “Chuck” Schumer. He said more than a year ago, “Overwhelmingly, New Yorkers would support my stand on Pickering.”
And of course many of them did. But then some of them watched Mike Wallace’s March 28 60 Minutes report from Mississippi on Pickering and were introduced to a man whom they would not recognize from Schumer’s portrait.
In the 1960s, Pickering, a Mississippi county attorney, exchanged information with the FBI about Ku Klux Klan violence against blacks. And—the Wallace report continued—in 1966, when “civil rights activist Vernon Damer was killed by a firebomb, and notorious Klan leader Sam Bowers was charged with the murder,” Pickering testified against Bowers, citing his reputation for violence. Pickering was 29 years old.
Pickering received FBI protection, and when he ran for the state legislature, Wallace noted, “the Klan took credit for defeating him.”
“Back in the ’70s,” Wallace continued, “when public schools [in Mississippi] were forced to integrate, many white parents took their children out of the public schools . . . but not the Pickerings.”
Pickering told Wallace: “We sent our children to the integrated schools, even though there was a good private school less than a block from our home. . . . We have a picture of our middle daughter. She’s in her class, which is predominantly black.” This is what Senator Schumer calls Pickering’s “glaring racial insensitivity”?
As for the cross-burning case, Mike Wallace continued, “three young white men were arrested [in 1994] for burning a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple. Two of the three defendants pled guilty to avoid going to jail. Prosecutors initially thought— wrongly—that the third defendant, Daniel Swan, had been the ringleader.”
Swan was offered a plea deal, with jail time, which he refused, and went to trial. The federal prosecutors then told Pickering to impose a hate-crime prison term of seven and a half years, under federal sentencing guidelines.
Pickering, on the evidence, as he told Mike Wallace, knew that the real ringleader “had shot into this same home [before], but he also had fought with African Americans at school and been suspended. Swan had none of this background.” Wallace quoted Pickering as stating emphatically that “this was the worst case of disproportionate sentencing he’d ever seen.”
Therefore, Pickering did indeed, Wallace noted, “put strong pressure on [the] prosecutors to drop part of Swan’s hate-crime conviction. Prosecutors finally gave in and the judge sentenced Swan to two and a half years in prison.”
As I added in my February 12, 2003, Voice column, one of the prosecutors wrote Pickering that he agreed with the judge that the sentence was “draconian.” But the prosecutor complained that Swan had “repeatedly chucked our [plea bargain] offers in our teeth.”
Swan had the nerve to exercise his right to defend himself at trial! So he had to be punished for costing the prosecutors their time, and the government added expense. Somehow, Senator Schumer has never mentioned that prosecutorial contempt for due process in this case.
After The Atlanta Journal-Constitution decided to extensively review the cross-burning case and the rest of Pickering’s judicial record, its reporter Bill Rankin wrote:
“Pickering—like many other federal judges who face rigid U.S. sentencing rules—has gone out of his way many times [as he did in the cross-burning case] to reduce prison sentences in cases where he thought the result would be unreasonable. And many of the defendants who benefited are black.” (Emphasis added.)
Yet, as I wrote here on February 12 last year, Ted Kennedy, joining the Schumer mob’s hit on Pickering, charged that this judge, “while coming down hard on black defendants, showed selective leniency against this white defendant [Daniel Swan].”
Are any of these character assassins—Kennedy, other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the New York Times and Newsday editorial writers, Maureen Dowd (Pickering has “a soft spot for cross burners”)—going to apologize to the judge?
And Schumer? He said last October 3: “Renominating Judge Pickering—especially in the wake of the Trent Lott affair—is a thumb in the eye of the black community.”
Then, after the true facts of Pickering’s record, on and off the bench, were detailed by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, Charles Schumer said on that very program: “The bottom line is, if Judge Pickering were so sensitive to the long and sad racial history in Mississippi, he would never have done what he did in the case of cross-burning.” (Emphasis added.)
Chuck, that crudely disingenuous statement is disgusting.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 27, 2004