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Published: Friday, 4/8/2005

Assault on the judiciary

DEADLY attacks on a judge in Atlanta and the family of a Chicago jurist were bad enough. Now, threats against the judiciary are coming from, of all places, Capitol Hill.

Several members of Congress have, in the past two weeks, made disparaging comments that cast doubt on the place of judges in the American legal system, their independence, and even their physical safety.

Following the death of Terri Schiavo, in which the federal courts ignored Congress's request to reinsert the woman's feeding tube, Rep. Tom DeLay, the combative House majority leader, intoned ominously that "the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."

Later, back in his Texas district, Mr. DeLay promised to "look at an arrogant, out of control, unaccountable judiciary that have thumbed their nose at the Congress and the President."

Then Sen. John Cornyn, another Texas Republican who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, suggested in a floor speech that incidents of courthouse violence might reflect public anger at "activist" judges who use their authority "to make raw political or ideological decisions."

Senator Cornyn declared that he didn't know whether those decisions directly provoked courthouse violence, but "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 violence. Certainly without any justification, but a concern that I have."

That's a good question, but if Senator Cornyn is truly concerned about violence toward judges, he should curb his own overheated rhetoric and that of Mr. DeLay, one of Washington's most venomous politicians.

Mr. DeLay, a master of the counterattack, was using the Schiavo case to deflect attention away from his own serious ethics problems. And, as a former state supreme court justice, Senator Cornyn ought to know the peril of stirring up unjustified public anger against one of our democratic system's most durable safeguards - the rule of law.

Besides, the county judge in Atlanta was murdered by the defendant in a rape trial, and the man who gunned down the husband and mother of the federal judge in Chicago was angry over a ruling against him in a medical malpractice case. Neither incident could fairly be called political or activist in nature.

If judges become routine targets for every sort of political malcontent, we'll know where they found their encouragement, and their accomplices: in the halls of Congress.



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