In bypassing Congress and giving Judge Charles Pickering a recess appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals, President Bush has partially righted a wrong that was done to a decent and honorable man. By giving Judge Pickering the recess appointment, which expires with this Congress next January, Mr. Bush circumvents the Senate confirmation process, in which Democrats have filibustered the Pickering nomination. This does not sit well with leading Democratic presidential candidates, among them Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who criticized Mr. Bush’s decision and scolded Judge Pickering as someone who “regularly put his personal views above the law in civil rights cases.”
Judge Pickering has been depicted by groups like the NAACP and People For the American Way as an enemy of civil rights. But black residents of Laurel, Miss., his hometown, say these assertions are false. Two years ago, New York Times correspondent David Firestone conducted scores of interviews with black residents of the city. He wrote that “on the streets of his small and largely black hometown, far from the bitterness of partisan agendas and position papers, Charles Pickering is a widely admired figure.” Blacks praised him for helping to set up after-school programs in the city and for directing federal money to low-income areas. Black city officials praised him for persuading white-owned banks to lend money to black entrepreneurs.
Four of the five blacks on the seven-member city council favored Judge Pickering’s promotion to the appeals court. Black residents pointed to the fact that, in 1967, Judge Pickering testified against Sam Bowers, a Ku Klux Klan leader on trial for the firebombing death of a local civil rights worker. They noted that, by testifying against Bowers (currently in prison for murdering another civil rights leader more than 30 years ago), Judge Pickering risked his life. “I can’t believe the man they’re describing in Washington is the same one I’ve known for years,” Thaddeus Edmonson, a former president of the Laurel chapter of the NAACP, told the New York Times.
But after Mr. Bush announced the recess appointment of Judge Pickering, he was scorched by a who’s who of Democratic candidates, among them Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who accused the president of threatening to infringe civil rights, and Mr. Edwards.
On his Web site, Mr. Edwards repeats a most egregious smear against Judge Pickering: that he “took extraordinary steps to reduce the sentence required by law for a man convicted of cross burning.” But the facts of the case are as follows. In January 1994, three hoodlums burned a cross on the lawn of a house. Two of the three — including the apparent ringleader and chief organizer of the cross-burning attack — received a sentence of six months of home detention and one year of probation. Judge Pickering urged prosecutors to reduce the sentence of the third, less culpable defendant, who had been sentenced to seven years in prison.
Mr. Edwards thus falsely depicts Judge Pickering’s attempt to provide equitability in sentencing as an act of insensitivity toward civil rights. With this slander of Judge Pickering, Mr. Edwards (who as a trial lawyer knows better) reveals himself a politician who will say anything — no matter how damaging to a decent man’s reputation — to win the presidency.