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Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2002 / 14 Adar, 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Pickering fight shows libs at their worst -- IT'S time for liberal groups such as People for the American Way and the NAACP to quit using character assassination to defeat conservative judicial nominees - and for Democratic Senators to show some independence from them.

Republicans have used defamation against liberal nominees too, as in the branding of Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White as "soft on crime" in 1999. But the usual pattern when the GOP controlled the Senate was to simply deny Democratic nominees a hearing and a confirmation vote.

Democrats are learning to do that as well, but they're more adept at character attacks - the most egregious examples being the campaigns against Supreme Court nominees Clement Haynsworth in 1969, Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991.

Now the liberal groups are systematically vilifying 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Charles Pickering as "hostile to civil rights" - read: racist - and as yet no Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee has raised a peep of objection. Pickering's chances in Judiciary don't look good.

In fact, the evidence suggests that Pickering is a decent, if outspoken, religious conservative who's repeatedly gone out of his way to help African-Americans.

Would a racist send his children to newly integrated schools in Mississippi in the 1960s when an all-white "academy" was just down the road? Pickering did.

And he kept his son, now Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), and three daughters in the Laurel, Miss., public schools even when, by the time they graduated, their high school was 70 percent African-American.

In majority-black Washington, D.C., white liberals, including some Senators, usually send their kids to private schools.

As a county attorney from 1964 to 1968, Pickering helped the FBI prosecute Ku Klux Klansmen and was defeated for re-election because of it. When he ran for the state Senate in 1971, he won with two-thirds support from black voters in his district.

This is scarcely the record of someone who represents "a throwback to the days of the segregated South," as Marcia Kuntz of the liberal Alliance for Justice called him.

As a state Senator, Pickering did vote twice to fund the notorious Mississippi Sovereignty Commission - at a time, his supporters say, when it claimed to be giving up its failed segregationist mission. Ultimately, it didn't do so and Pickering voted for its dissolution.

In 1992, Pickering urged his son, then an aide to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), to help win membership in the Sigma Chi chapter at the University of Mississippi for Damon Evans, son of the Ole Miss football coach.

At that point, no African-American had ever been admitted to a white fraternity, and Evans was facing an anonymous "blackball." Pickering flew down to Oxford, made a speech to the members of his and his father's fraternity, and got Evans accepted.

If, as liberals sometimes argue, "the personal is the political," then Pickering's record is that of an advocate of civil rights. He was able to get white-owned banks to lend money to black businesses and helped direct federal funds to after-school and medical programs for blacks.

In what ought to be a humiliating blow to the anti-Pickering assault brigade, The New York Times last Sunday reported that African-American leaders in his hometown overwhelmingly vouch for him and dismiss charges that he's racially prejudiced.

People for the American Way Director Ralph Neas was reduced to saying that those who have watched Pickering at close hand for decades know less about him than Washington activists.

I'd trust Mississippi civil rights leader Charles Evers, who backs Pickering, a lot sooner than the NAACP's Julian Bond and Kwesi Mfume, sponsors of one of the most scurrilous campaign ads ever run - the 2000 ad suggesting that George W. Bush's failure to sign a new hate-crimes law in Texas was equivalent to the murder of James Byrd.

Neas says he's never accused Pickering of being personally "racist," but that his record is one of "insensitivity" and "hostility" to civil rights.

Yet, close examinations by Jonathan Groner in Legal Times and Byron York in National Review pretty clearly discredit Neas' charges that Pickering has been biased in employment and voting-rights cases and was too lenient - and may have behaved unethically - in a cross-burning case.

York has demolished the basis for attacks on Pickering by Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) in the 1994 cross-burning case.

York showed that Pickering believed that the Justice Department had let off the main perpetrator of the incident and that he intervened with Justice not - as Edwards alleged - to secure leniency for the defendant but to hasten a government response to his inquiries. He sentenced the defendant, Daniel Swan, to 27 months in prison.

I can't say that Pickering is qualified to serve on the 5th Circuit. The Washington Post, while scolding liberals for their tactics, asserts that Pickering has been a district judge "of no particular distinction."

On the other hand, since Democrats have elevated American Bar Association ratings to iconic status, it's worth noting that a majority of its rating committee found Pickering "well qualified" and the remainder, "qualified."

Still, Pickering is in trouble. Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) is against him and Democrats have a 10-8 margin over Republicans on Judiciary, enough to deny him a floor vote. Moreover, the White House isn't fighting very hard for his nomination. Too bad - the guy deserves better.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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