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Far-right attacks on judiciary are fueling possible violence and must be stopped
Florida Today
Demonizing the courts
March 26, 2006

Recent public remarks by two Supreme Court justices show how dangerous the mounting attacks on one of the core principles of American democracy -- an independent judiciary -- have become.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said congressional criticism of some court decisions is inciting a climate of violence against judges, and detailed a death threat against her and former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor posted in an Internet chat room last year.

In a speech at Georgetown University Law Center this month, O'Connor issued a similarly dire warning about escalating attacks on the independent judiciary, saying a nation deprived of one is on the path to dictatorship.

This is not a partisan issue.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy asked Congress for more police protection last year, and federal judges nationwide are heading for the bunkers.

The situation is so serious that more than three-quarters of them have requested home security systems from the government, according to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

They're seeking the protections in part because of retaliatory episodes like the one in Chicago last year, where a man whose case had been dismissed killed the husband and mother of a federal judge.

But, as Ginsburg and O'Conner warned, jurists are increasingly targeted for violence by an irrational fringe of far-right extremists who use the meaningless term "activist judges" to demonize judges whose decisions they don't like.

And that fringe is being inflamed by some in Congress intent on stripping the judiciary of its constitutionally enshrined powers.

Among them are ex-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Feeney's ugly remarks

During the Terri Schiavo case here in Florida last year, both made statements that seemed to excuse threats against federal judges, simply because the jurists correctly upheld previous court rulings that said the brain-dead woman should be allowed to die.

U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, also used Schiavo as a chance to lash out at the bench, accusing jurists such as 6th Judicial Circuit Court George Greer -- in whose courtroom the Schiavo case played out -- of being "arrogant, supremacist ideologues."

Abhorrent remarks such as Feeney's fed into an atmosphere of vitriol that led to death threats against Greer, a conservative Republican and Southern Baptist, who was forced to travel under armed police protection.

Feeney was also the chief sponsor of a resolution GOP lawmakers have used since 2004 to vilify judges whose rulings don't toe the line of the far-right agenda.

The measure -- which would forbid federal judges from referring to foreign law or reviewing international precedents -- grossly misrepresents the long established judicial practice as new and different, or part of some conspiracy to undermine American standards.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

U.S. courts have considered international norms since the nation's earliest days, and no wonder, considering our judicial system -- and our democratic values -- derive from British, Greco-Roman and other foreign traditions.

Conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Thomas, among others, have used foreign precedent as part of thorough judicial review before issuing legal opinions.

But Feeney and other far-right conservatives object to the practice when rulings on controversial issues such as gay rights or the death penalty don't go their way.

Weldon's dangerous move

Even former Chief Justice William Rehnquist spoke in favor of U.S. courts looking to the decisions of foreign courts as part of the deliberative process.

It can't be much clearer that the issue of foreign precedents -- which are never binding in U.S. courts -- is just a convenient scare tactic to play into the xenophobic fears of an ill-informed public.

And then there's Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Indialantic, who wants to emasculate the judiciary in another dangerous way.

He's a co-sponsor of a bill called the Constitutional Restoration Act of 2005, still pending in Congress.

The measure would deprive courts of authority in cases tied to the acknowledgement of God, endangering the separation of church and state.

Broader legislative attempts to strip courts of oversight of controversial issues such as abortion and penalize or impeach judges for unpopular rulings are also in the works.

If allowed to succeed, they'll obliterate the balance of power between the legislative and judicial branches.

That will pave the way for a federal bench beholden to political interests rather than the rule of law.

Americans who respect the cherished constitutional principle of an independent judiciary should make their voices heard in protest.

Only loud opposition to this tide of ugly attacks upon the bench can preserve the integrity of the courts.

Original Text