Democrats fire back in battle over judges

Senators accuse GOP of undermining courts, trying to impose own will

April 06, 2005|By Jill Zuckman | Jill Zuckman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats criticized Republican colleagues yesterday, accusing them of trying to undermine the federal judiciary and impose their will on the separate and independent branch of government.

The battle over judges has spread to several fronts on Capitol Hill - from parliamentary struggles over judicial nominations to anger over the refusal of federal courts to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo to conservative efforts to rein in those perceived as activist judges.

The latest skirmish ignited after Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and former state Supreme Court judge, suggested Monday on the Senate floor that recent courthouse violence might be connected to feelings that judges are making "political decisions" and are "unaccountable to the public."

Senate Democrats seized on the issue yesterday to portray Republicans as extremists.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois called the comments troubling and said Cornyn had gone too far in trying to link judges' decisions with violence against judges.

"The deranged individual who [killed U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow's mother and husband] did so after she denied him a medical malpractice claim in court. That is hardly evidence of judicial activism," Durbin said. "And the man who went on a rampage in Georgia was convicted of rape. To suggest that the judge somehow overstepped his bounds in inviting this kind of response ... is totally off base."

Cornyn insisted yesterday that Democrats were taking his words out of context.

"I'm deeply concerned about violence," he said, noting that he served as a judge in Texas for 13 years. "Judges should be independent, and judges should do their duty."

He said he was trying to make the point that "some judges are engaged in policy-making and [are] undermining respect for the judiciary."

His comments followed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's suggestion last week that judges who refused to order that Schiavo's feeding tube be reinserted would face retribution.

"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior," said DeLay, a Texas Republican, after Schiavo died. He later called the judges part of "an arrogant, out-of-control, unaccountable judiciary that thumbed their nose at Congress and the president."

A spokesman said DeLay expects the Judiciary Committee to recommend possible actions to be pursued in the House.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said Cornyn's and DeLay's words "are really hard for me to comprehend and justify."

Holding a copy of the Constitution, Reid said: "I believe in our Constitution. I believe in the separation of powers doctrine. I believe the Founding Fathers were wise in developing these branches of government - executive branch, legislative branch, judicial branch - one having no more power than the other."

Some conservatives began complaining long before the Schiavo case gained wide notice that too many judges take the law into their own hands, ignoring the will of Congress.

But not all key Republicans on the Hill expressed discontent over the federal court decisions in the Schiavo case.

"I believe we have a fair and independent judiciary today," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. He said the courts' review of the Schiavo case "was not as complete as we would like," but that the panels were "fair and independent."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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