Angry words against judges could incite deadly deeds

April 11, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - Brian Nichols - the escaped rape defendant accused of killing four people in Atlanta, including a judge - gained a novel defense last week from an unlikely ally. A Republican senator from Texas suggested that Mr. Nichols' alleged crimes might have grown out of a political frustration with judges who "make raw political or ideological decisions."

"We seem to have run through a spate of courthouse violence recently. ... I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters on some occasions where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds and builds to the point where some people engage in violence," Sen. John Cornyn said in remarks from the Senate floor April 4.

Mr. Nichols would undoubtedly seize upon any opportunity to cast his alleged rampage as an act of political retribution. According to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Beth Warren, he had already told police that he saw himself as a "soldier on a mission" to avenge racism. (His journey through the criminal justice system, however, began with his arrest on charges of raping his ex-girlfriend, who, like Mr. Nichols, is black.)

Bart Ross, who committed suicide after he apparently killed the husband and mother of a Chicago federal judge in February, would probably also want to be cast as a political crusader. Distressed over cancer treatments, he had launched a series of losing lawsuits claiming medical malpractice. In a rambling suicide note, published by the Chicago Tribune, he wrote, "The murderers are the listed [expletive], who violated me like Nazis and terrorists and deprived me justice and compensation."

In retrospect, Senator Cornyn must have realized he would not want to associate himself with the likes of either Mr. Nichols or Mr. Ross. He later tried to recast his remarks, claiming they had been "taken out of context."

Actually, the context was pretty clear. In a time when social conservatives are incensed over "activist judges," several of their powerful leaders, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, have launched vitriolic assaults on the judiciary.

They are playing with fire, stoking the passions of fringe lunatics who might take it upon themselves to commit murder in the name of the "culture of life" these leaders supposedly revere. While the First Amendment, happily, gives men such as Mr. Cornyn and Mr. DeLay the legal protection to say what they like, they have a moral obligation, as national leaders, to avoid that sort of inflammatory rhetoric.

Florida Circuit Judge George Greer, the principal judge in the Terri Schiavo case, has long traveled with bodyguards because of death threats. Just last week, a California woman was arrested for threatening to kill Michael Schiavo and Judge Greer.

Many such threats represent nothing more than mouthing off by malcontents. But sometimes, an unsettled mind acts out those violent fantasies.

Mr. Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, may have sincerely regretted a few moments of intemperance in a speech that was otherwise within the bounds of responsible political commentary. As criticism of his remarks escalated, he noted that he had never suggested that violence against judges is justified and expressed regret that his comments may have been "construed to contribute to the problem rather than a solution."

Now if only Mr. DeLay would cool the verbal firebombs. He still doesn't seem to understand - or care- that his reckless rantings could encourage the nation's homegrown terrorists.

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

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