A Judge’s Life: The Final Reckoning


William Moody, an African-American drug defendant, was arrested in 2000, seven years after his indictment. Authorities could not find him because he was living in New York, holding a steady job and supporting his family. Upon learning about Moody’s apparent turnaround, [District Judge] Pickering delayed his sentencing a year, allowing his continued good behavior to be used as a basis for punishment with no prison time. —Bill Rankin, staff writer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 9, 2003.

I write this final column on Charles Pickering because, in some 50 years as a reporter, I have seldom seen such reckless, unfair, and repeated attacks on a person—not only by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee but also by organizations that gather financial contributions because of their proclaimed dedication to civil rights, civil liberties, and honest research. (People for the American Way, Alliance for Justice, et al.)

In contrast with all the fierce rejections of Pickering for a seat on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, there is a statement from Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith. A very model of the kind of Bill of Rights judge that should be on the U.S. Supreme Court, Damon Keith—ruling against John Ashcroft’s closing of deportation hearings around the country—said famously: “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”

Judge Keith, who is black, writing to Democratic senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told of how Pickering had been instrumental in Judge Anne C. Williams’s appointment as “the first African-American judge on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.”

Keith added that, knowing Pickering’s “temperament, fairness, and sense of compassion . . . I recommend Judge Charles W. Pickering, Sr. to you without reservation. . . . [Pickering believes] all men are created equal.”

But although the doors to the Senate Judiciary Committee are not closed, the minds of Patrick Leahy and the other Democrats on that committee were closed; and the first time around, Pickering’s nomination was killed in committee.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, realizing that Pickering’s “judicial reputation hangs almost entirely on one explosive case”—the cross-burning case—decided to extensively review that case and the rest of Pickering’s judicial record.

As reporter Bill Rankin wrote in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 9, that paper concluded that “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.)

The March 9 article by Rankin also noted that before being nominated to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by the president:

Pickering, “in a 1999 essay on race relations in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, addressed racial bias in the courts, empathizing with black, not white, concerns. He counseled whites who were angry about the recent acquittal of a black murder suspect to look at the justice system from a black perspective.

“While Mississippians may not realize that African-Americans are treated differently by the system,” Pickering wrote, “it is the truth and a most disturbing one if you are black.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution added that “as a judge, Pickering has thrown out only two jury verdicts, both times because he felt the verdicts were biased against minority plaintiffs.”

Charles Schumer, Richard Durbin, Russ Feingold, Pat Leahy, and the rest of the Democratic posse on the Senate Judiciary Committee didn’t mention those parts of Pickering’s record during the two Senate hearings on his nomination.

The national NAACP, which has largely become an adjunct of the Democratic Party, has treated Pickering as if he were in the tradition of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. But strong black support of Pickering throughout Mississippi includes such voices as Reverend Kenneth Fairley, Senior Pastor of Mount Carmel Ministries:

“I served as president of the Forrest County branch of the NAACP. . . . I currently serve as a State Coordinator for the Rainbow Coalition under the leadership of Reverend Jesse Jackson. . . . I wholeheartedly support Judge Pickering in his judgeship and request the United States Senate to ratify his appointment.”

Then there is Mississippi state representative Phillip West, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, who first opposed Pickering’s nomination to the Fifth Circuit, but after fully examining Pickering’s record has now reversed his position. He writes:

“While I do not condemn and judge all white men and women to be ‘staunch racists,’ I do believe many have racist tendencies and beliefs as evidenced by the racism instilled in our many institutions. At least Judge Pickering has shown a willingness to work for racial reconciliation prior to his consideration for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals position.”

West also says Pickering’s actions for racial reconciliation have gone “beyond . . . many whites we have supported . . . in our state. . . . It would also be ‘Politically Correct’ for me to remain silent. However, I cannot support a position that may be ‘Politically Correct’ but I feel is ‘morally wrong.’ I truly believe we all should embrace truth, justice, and fairness whether we are black or white, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican.”

On January 8, the Federal News Service reported a press conference at which Charles Schumer and Illinois Democratic senator Richard Durbin once again opposed Pickering’s nomination. Said Schumer: “There are issues where people of good faith can disagree. . . . This [nomination] is not one of those debatable issues. This [Pickering] is somebody who showed glaring insensitivity in 1994 [the cross-burning case], and I’m still scratching my head in amazement that they actually nominated him.”

This depends on what Schumer means by “good faith.” Not only Pickering’s nomination rides on this nomination. So do the reputations of those Pickering opponents who demonize him. And that includes The New York Times‘ editorial writers. On October 30, Pickering received only 54 votes. He needs 60 votes to prevent the Democrats from filibustering further action on his nomination.