AS A CITIZEN of the United States, Kenneth Ryskamp has every right to say what he thinks, to associate with whomever he wants and to live in peace.
As a federal court judge, however, Ryskamp has to carefully weigh his basic rights as an American with his obligation to mete out equal justice to all the people who come before his bench -- regardless of race, creed or religion.
That's why judges have to watch what they say and avoid even the appearance that they associate themselves with bigots. Judges, unlike most other people, must live in a fishbowl of public scrutiny.
Unfortunately, Ryskamp, a U.S. district judge in Miami, doesn't seem to have figured this out. That must be why he waited until last week to quit the Riviera Country Club in Coral Gables, Fla., which has a reputation for discriminating against blacks, Hispanics and Jews. He quit only a few days before he went before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering President Bush's nomination of Ryskamp to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. That court handles cases from Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
Civil rights groups are criticizing Bush's nominee because of his verdicts and the outlandish statements he made as a judge on cases dealing with age discrimination, police brutality and other civil rights issues. Ryskamp counters that he's simply a victim of press manipulation and distortion, and that his statements were taken "out of context."
OK, let's try to give Ryskamp the benefit of the doubt. Who can claim to have never said in innocence something that was misconstrued by others? Besides, despite his foot-in-the-mouth exercises from the bench, Ryskamp's record on civil rights is pretty much in line with that of other judges.
The real problem, though, is Ryskamp's laissez-faire attitude toward private clubs that discriminate. He has belonged to at least two such clubs, and apparently his only motivation to quit them was his political aspiration to be a judge.
He only left Miami's University Club, which bars women from membership, right before he was appointed to the U.S. District Court in 1986. Meanwhile, he stayed on at the Riviera Club while he was on the bench until last week, even though that club has no black members and only recently is said to have recruited Hispanic and Jewish members.
Imagine having to go before Ryskamp to argue that you're a victim of discrimination when you know that for 23 years he has belonged to a club with a history of discriminatory practices. Even if the Riviera club now doesn't have such policies, as Ryskamp contends, the fact remains that most people in Miami know you can't get into the Riviera unless you're very well connected and, well, white.
But back to the courtroom. Just think how you would feel coming before this judge trying to make a case that you were fired from your job because you're black. Ryskamp may not have a bigoted bone in his body, and you may not have much of a case, but his very membership in a club that doesn't have one black member leaves the illusion, to put it kindly, that it's discriminatory. Would you expect a fair shake from this judge?
Admittedly, there's a lot of hypocrisy in the Congress when it comes to discrimination. Even though the Judiciary Committee passed a resolution last August making it "inappropriate" for any judicial nominee to belong to a club that discriminates on grounds of race or sex, there remain a few members of Congress and a few federal judges who belong to such clubs. Those public officials, however, are slowly coming around to the realization that in today's world, you won't get elected or appointed to public office by belonging to all-white-male clubs.
Ryskamp should have quit the Riviera not because the Judiciary Committee has a new rule. He should have quit that club long ago because it was the right thing to do for an impartial judge. Incredibly, Ryskamp still doesn't see the justice in that.
Myriam Marquez is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.