The Senate’s Duty: Reject Judge Pickering

Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

For the better part of two years there has been an unsuccessful effort to get the U.S. Senate to approve Mississippi federal district court judge Charles W. Pickering, Sr. for a federal appeals court judgeship.
Now, the issue is before the Senate once again—and, again, we urge the Senate to reject Judge Pickering's nomination.

The Senate did not approve Judge Pickering last year for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, one of the most conservative courts in the country, after a bruising nomination fight in which opponents raised questions about some of his past actions and his record as a federal trial judge.

Those questions included positions he had taken as a Mississippi state senator against school desegregation orders in the 1970s and against expanding opportunities for people of color to gain elective office.

More recently, during his years on the federal bench Judge Pickering's positions in several employment-discrimination and voting-rights cases showed an unmistakable hostility toward federal civil rights laws.
Perhaps, most startlingly, they also include his striking efforts to gain leniency for a man convicted in 1994 of burning an eight-foot-tall cross on the lawn of an interracial couple.

In that case, Judge Pickering tried to deter prosecutors from seeking the mandatory five-year sentence for the man, whom prosecutors characterized as the ringleader of the crime, and when that didn't work, he took the extraordinary step of calling the Justice Department himself to complain.

According to a Justice Department document, Judge Pickering also directly called one of the prosecutors in the case at home to try to persuade him to seek a shorter sentence, even though the official code of conduct for federal judges forbids any out-of-court contact between a judge and attorneys for one side of a case about that case.

These actions were those, not of a judge, but of an ideological advocate—of someone unfit for the federal bench.

In 2002, when Judge Pickering was first nominated, the Democrats controlled the Senate, and the nomination was bottled up. That changed, however, with the November elections and last January after the GOP took control of the Senate. Earlier this month the Senate Judiciary Committee, by a strict, party-line vote of 10 to 9, recommended Pickering's nomination.

One reason the contest over the Pickering nomination is important is that the Fifth Circuit, which is comprised of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and has the largest percentage of African Americans and Latino Americans of any federal circuit, is already one of the most conservative federal circuit courts. It needs a jurist who will exercise a moderating influence on its record of antagonism toward civil rights for all in its decisions.

This very conservative tilt is a remarkable about-face for a Federal Appeals Court that in the 1950s and 1960s stood firmly on the side of school desegregation and civil rights. Indeed, in those days the Court was dominated by moderate Southern Republicans, jurists like the late Judge John Minor Wisdom, who were appointed by President Eisenhower.

We are sure there are many Mississippi lawyers, moderate in their views on civil rights, who would make stellar judges for this very important seat on the Federal Appeals Court. We simply believe that Judge Pickering's public record shows him not to be among that number.

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