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Published: 7/20/2005

Another attack on the courts

WHEN it comes to arrogance, few in that den of overblown egos known as the U.S. House of Representatives can match Rep. James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

C-Span watchers will recognize the Wisconsin Republican as the petty tyrant who abruptly ended a June 10 hearing on the Patriot Act by cutting off a microphone, grabbing his gavel, and bolting from the committee room.

The reason: He didn't like the fact that minority Democrats were taking legitimate advantage of House rules to ask embarrassing questions.

Now it has been revealed that Mr. Sensenbrenner privately tried to bully a federal appeals court into reversing a decision in which a drug courier got a shorter prison sentence than the congressman thought she deserved.

In what can only be described as an attempt at intimidation, Mr. Sensenbrenner wrote a letter to the chief judge of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago demanding "a prompt response" outlining steps the court would take to "rectify the panel's action."

The court responded by filing an addendum to the case pointing out why Mr. Sensenbrenner was wrong and by placing his letter in the public case file, thereby exposing the congressman's attempted abuse of power.

Members of Congress like to throw their weight around, but what separates this incident from others is that Mr. Sensenbrenner, as head of the committee charged with judicial oversight, just might retaliate by cutting the court's budget or some such tactic.

Some judicial experts believe the congressman's letter was inappropriate or may have violated House ethics rules, which prohibit members from privately communicating with judges on legal matters. There is little doubt, though, that it is of a piece with the ugly political threats against the judiciary in recent months.

For example: Rep. Tom DeLay's dark suggestion after the Terri Schiavo decision that "the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior." Or the public musing by Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, that violence against judges might somehow be justified.

It's odd that these assaults on the legal system are coming from political partisans who used to preach about respect for the rule of law. But in Congress these days, the arrogance of power seems to rule above all else.



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