The War on Judges
Irresponsible Rhetoric Can Lead to Tragic Results
John Conyers Jr. (Blog)
April 04, 2005
During the protracted coverage and debate of the Schiavo
matter, I was struck by the disrespectful and reckless language
being used against judges. One by one, my Republican colleagues
took the House floor to attack judges as "unconscionable,"
lacking "human compassion," needing to be held in "contempt," and
having "answering to do." I remember thinking that such
dehumanizing rhetoric is especially dangerous in these times
towards anyone, let alone judges.
Outside the halls of Congress, words flew even more recklessly
and the House Majority Leader Tom DeLay called the removal of
Schiavo's feeding tube an "act of medical terrorism." The
Reverend Pat Robertson called it "judicial murder."
I remember thinking about Judge Rowland Barnes of Georgia, who
less than a month ago, was shot to death by an angry litigant in
his courtroom, along with two other court employees. I remember
thinking that irresponsible words can lead to tragic results. I
thought of Judge Joan Lefkow, whose husband and mother are
thought to have been murdered by an aggrieved litigant. Since
then, I have been trying to think of the most appropriate forum
to gently call this to my colleagues' attention, and to remind
them that -- no matter how strong our feelings about individual
decisions and cases, we need to be cognizant of the influence we
may have -- especially on those that may be disturbed, and we
always need to know that -- as elected officials -- our words
That was to be a subtle message. It is unfortunate that today
my message must be less subtle because things are very quickly
spinning out of control.
First, the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives,
Tom DeLay, made the outrageous statement, and apparent threat,
that "the time will come for the men responsible for this to
answer for their behavior." When given repeated opportunities to
disavow the interpretation of his comments as a threat or
incitement to violence, DeLay has repeatedly declined to do
Tonight, my staff showed me a quote from Senator John Cornyn
(found on Americablog) that speaks for itself: "And finally, I
– I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection
but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in
this country. Certainly nothing new, but we seem to have run
through a spate of courthouse violence recently that's been on
the news. And I wonder whether there may be some connection
between the perception in some quarters on some occasions where
judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to
the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the
point where some people engage in -- engage in violence.
Certainly without any justification but a concern that I have
that I wanted to share."
This apparent effort to rationalize violence against judges is
deplorable. On its face, while it contains doubletalk that
simultaneously offers a justification for such violence and then
claims not to, the fundamental core of the statement seems to be
that judges have somehow brought this violence on themselves.
This also carries an implicit threat: that if judges do not do
what the far right wants them to do (thus becoming the "judicial
activists" the far right claims to deplore), the violence may
If this is what Senator Cornyn meant to say, it is outrageous,
irresponsible and unbecoming of our leaders. To be sure, I have
disagreed with many, many court rulings. (For example, Bush v.
Gore may well be the single greatest example of judicial activism
we have seen in our lifetime.) But there is no excuse, no excuse,
for a Member of Congress to take our discourse to this ugly and
My message is not subtle today. It is simple. To my Republican
colleagues: you are playing with fire, you are playing with
lives, and you must stop.
Senator Cornyn and Congressman DeLay should immediately
retract these ill considered statements.