Religious extremists aim to put their own `activist judges' on the bench

April 04, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - Friends of Florida Judge George Greer describe him as a low-key conservative Christian, a Republican, a family man, a dog lover. Appellate courts have found over and over again that Judge Greer simply followed the law in deciding a sad and controversial case. But for that sin, the Pinellas-Pasco County Circuit Court judge was invited out of his Southern Baptist Church.

Apparently, Judge Greer's critics, including his pastor, didn't like his rulings in the Terri Schiavo case, which landed in his courtroom in 1998. They wanted him to be an activist judge - a jurist who ignored the law and ruled according to the passions of a group of partisans.

Ultraconservatives want you to believe the term "activist judge" applies to a group of determined liberals whose rulings have overturned historic precedent, undermined morality and defied common sense. But the controversy that erupted around Mrs. Schiavo, who died Thursday, ought to remind us once and for all what "activist judge" really means: one whose rulings dissatisfy a right-wing political constituency.

You'll soon hear the term "activist judge" often as President Bush nominates justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. The president could end up appointing as many as four.

With so many likely vacancies, ultraconservatives see an opportunity to drive from the bench any semblance of fealty to the law or the U.S. Constitution. They claim that judges have become the tool of an outlandish liberal fringe that has violated the graves of the Founding Fathers. When right-wing talk-show hosts and U.S. senators denounce judicial activism, they conjure up images of jurists who terrorize the God-fearing, coddle criminals and would outlaw the Bible.

The next time you hear those claims, think of Judge Greer. He is among the targets of ultraconservative ire. For that matter, think of the Supreme Court - hardly a bastion of liberalism. Its justices declined to intervene in the Schiavo case because they could find no legitimate reason to do so.

While the rift between Michael Schiavo and his in-laws, Bob and Mary Schindler, is depressing, family conflict is almost a way of life in America. Courts are called upon often to settle family disputes over money, children and property. Florida law makes clear that a spouse has the right to decide end-of-life issues, and after testimony from several people, Judge Greer upheld Mr. Schiavo's claim that his wife didn't want to be kept alive through artificial means.

It is perfectly understandable that the Schindlers were unhappy with his ruling. But the attacks on the judiciary by the Schindlers' supporters - including an attempted end-run by an activist Congress - made it clear that a minority of religious extremists has no respect for the law and no understanding of the separation of powers on which this government was founded.

Among those who missed their high school civics class, apparently, were Congress and the president. In one of many rulings turning down the Schindlers' request for intervention, an Atlanta federal court judge chastised the executive and legislative branches for overreaching.

The current President Bush has already made clear that his idea of a model chief justice is Clarence Thomas, who has no respect for judicial precedent. But even Justice Thomas might not satisfy the extremists who chastise Judge Greer. They will be satisfied with nothing less than a judiciary steeped in the same narrow religious views they want to impose on the nation.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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