Thursday, November 6, 2003

A Senate committee yesterday approved the federal court nomination of California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, although the panel’s Democrats unanimously voted against her — a clear signal of a filibuster on the floor.

During the same Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Democratic presidential candidate, issued a statement reversing his earlier position on Justice Brown, who, like Mr. Sharpton, is black.

Democrats produced a new statement from Mr. Sharpton’s campaign office that urged them “to do everything within their means to prevent” Justice Brown from reaching the second-highest federal court in the country.

“I am strongly opposed to the nomination of Janice Rogers Brown to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals,” said the statement, echoing sentiments of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and many liberal interest groups. “She is so far removed from the judicial mainstream that she poses a serious threat to the progress we have made in civil rights.”

A day earlier, The Washington Times reported comments in which Mr. Sharpton said Democrats should not filibuster Justice Brown. In a videotaped interview Wednesday on Sinclair Broadcasting, Mr. Sharpton said: “I don’t agree with her politics. I don’t agree with some of her background. But she should get an up-or-down vote.”

The developments came on a day of heightened discord between Republicans and Democrats over judicial nominations.

After trying to block Justice Brown in committee, Democrats voted on the Senate floor to continue a filibuster against another of President Bush’s nominees, Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor, nominated to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Later in the day, Republicans announced that they will force Democrats to defend their filibusters against Mr. Pryor and two other judicial nominees in an all-night 30-hour straight debate next week.

Throughout yesterday, many were scratching their heads about Mr. Sharpton’s conflicting statements. Among them was columnist Armstrong Williams, who conducted the television interview with Mr. Sharpton on Wednesday.

“He’s on the record,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s on camera. This is crazy.”

Mr. Williams said it was particularly curious because he spoke to Mr. Sharpton twice yesterday, even after the press statement reversing himself had been distributed at the committee meeting.

“He said they were putting a lot of pressure on him but that he was sticking to his guns,” Mr. Williams said. “I asked him about the statement, and he said, ‘What statement?’”

Asked who the pressure was coming from, Mr. Williams listed several Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate Democrats said they were not aware of any pressure put on Mr. Sharpton.

“There’s nobody on Earth that can pressure Al Sharpton to do anything he doesn’t want to do,” said one Democratic Senate aide.

Mr. Sharpton’s spokeswoman did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking an explanation for the reversal.

During yesterday’s meeting on Justice Brown, Democrats focused much of their attention on speeches she has given since joining the state’s high court.

“There is a Justice Brown who is a sitting member of the Supreme Court, and there is a Justice Brown who makes speeches,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat.

In particular, Mrs. Feinstein and others cited two of her speeches.

In a 1999 speech at Claremont McKenna College in California, Justice Brown said: “Where government advances, it advances relentlessly — freedom is in peril, community impoverished, religion marginalized and civilization itself jeopardized.”

In a 2000 speech at the University of Chicago Law School, she said: “Where government moves in, community retreats, civil society disintegrates and our ability to control our own destiny atrophies. The result is: families under siege; war in the streets; unapologetic expropriation of property; the precipitous decline of the rule of law; the rapid rise of corruption; the loss of civility and the triumph of deceit. The result is a debased, debauched culture which finds moral depravity entertaining and virtue contemptible.”

“It’s hard for me to imagine someone with such views wanting to sit on the D.C. Circuit,” Mrs. Feinstein said. “I have a lot of reservations about the impact of having a judge with such hostility to government serving on the circuit which hears so many of the important cases.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, agreed.

“Her record shows a deep-seated and disturbing hostility to civil rights, workers’ rights, consumer protection and government action,” he said.

“Time and again in public speeches, Justice Brown has leveled scathing criticism at the very idea of government regulation.”

Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, considered the same passages from Justice Brown and said: “Her speeches have a golden eloquence to them. I find them almost ringing statements of what our Founding Fathers believed were the rights of citizens over their government.”

He said it is healthy to have jurists who wonder “whether we in Congress push too far sometimes. Sometimes we fail to recognize that free citizens have a very powerful right in this country. I find many of the words that the justice uses in her speeches to be words of American eloquence.”

Many of Justice Brown’s speeches reflect a suspicion of government based on her growing up as the daughter of sharecroppers in segregated Alabama under the Jim Crow laws at that time.

In another 2000 speech, she said: “My heritage includes not only the middle passage but the trail of tears; not only the rhythms of midnight trains but the terrors of midnight riders; Jim Crow and Jim Dandy; white sepulchres and colored fountains. Anyone with that kind of history will tell you quite emphatically that the positive law is not enough.”

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