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Published: Tuesday, 5/24/2005

Death of civility

THE appearance before a congressional committee of a federal judge who lost her husband and mother to a murderous rejected litigant demonstrates that money alone won't protect the judiciary.

Judge Joan Lefkow emerged from a shroud of security imposed after the Feb. 28 attack on her family in Chicago to eloquently point out how the raw and reckless rhetoric of those leading the current political attack on the nation's judges poses a more amorphous but real threat.

"In this age of mass communication, harsh rhetoric is truly dangerous," Judge Lefkow told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It seems to me that even though we cannot prove a cause and effect relationship between rhetorical attacks on judges in general and violent acts of vengeance by a particular litigant, the fostering of disrespect for judges can only encourage those who are on the edge or on the fringe to exact revenge on a judge who displeases them."

There are many examples of extremist talk that have set the anti-judicial pot boiling, but Judge Lefkow was referring to a recent comment by Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, who declared that activist judges are responsible for the "gradual erosion of the consensus that's held our country together," a threat he said is "probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings."

Such radical overstatement has become a regular feature of American political discourse. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of these verbal excesses, but the right-wing assault on judges is the more disturbing because that faction now has the political clout from the White House on down to put words into action.

Witness James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, ordering Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to reject any compromise on the judicial filibuster issue or face the loss of Christian-right support for his 2008 presidential aspirations.

Whether Senator Frist and other congressional Republicans accede to Judge Lefkow's plea that they "publicly and persistently repudiate gratuitous attacks on the judiciary" will tell us a good deal about the political climate we can expect over the next few years.

In the meantime, more money for the U.S. Marshal's Service will help protect judges from the fury that touched Judge Lefkow's family.

But no government appropriation can bring back the civility lost in the ideological clash over the place of the judiciary in our legal system. Only people of good will can do that. Are there any left in Washington?



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