April 5, 2005

Stirring up hatred against judges.

People have been complaining about "activist" judges for years. But here's a Washington Post report on a Senate speech by Senator John Cornyn that speculates that judicial activism might cause violence:
"I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country. . . . And 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 up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in, engage in violence. Certainly without any justification, but a concern that I have."
The article connects that remark (which seems to be a rather idiotic sort of talking off the top or your head) with Representative Tom DeLay's recent comment:
"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."
DeLay was grousing about the judges in the Schiavo case; Cornyn was complaining about the recent Supreme Court case that barred the death penalty for persons who commit their crimes before they reach the age of 18.

It is really a shame how little people understand of the reasons judges decide cases the way they do. DeLay and Cornyn, like many others, signal to the public to think that the judges are simply out of control and the cases are inexplicable as the serious work of deeply thoughtful persons steeped in the legal tradition. It wouldn't be wise just to assume that judges are unerring oracles of law, but to leap to the opposite conclusion and decide they are frauds is even more foolish. And for a public figure even to hint at violence as a solution is completely unacceptable.

UPDATE: First, thanks to Glenn Reynolds for linking. ("I agree with Ann Althouse.") Second, before you reflexively email me in defense of Cornyn, read what I've written. Don't tell me to pay more attention to specifics of what he said without paying attention to the specifics of what I've said. And you needn't inform me that he was a state supreme court justice. That fact is in the Washington Post article, which I obviously read. And I'm also perfectly aware that he's structured his remarks to preserve deniability. He doesn't openly encourage violence, and I didn't say that he did. He's legitimating hostility toward judges, however, and portraying the judges as out-of-control power-wielders. And he's expressing understanding for people who snap and express hostility with violence. That is going too far. My conclusion above is: for a public figure even to hint at violence as a solution is completely unacceptable. I stand by that. Cornyn should know better and behave more responsibly. There are unbalanced people out there who take things the wrong way, and judges -- especially trial judges -- are on the front lines, dealing with dangerous people and often frustrating them.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Beldar urges me to read the whole text of the Cornyn speech and also writes that Cornyn, as a former judge, has a better understanding of how judges decide cases than I do. First, when I wrote "It is really a shame how little people understand of the reasons judges decide cases the way they do," I was referring to the reasons given in written opinions, which I've been reading for a quarter of a century. I have a complaint with people in the political sphere, as Cornyn is today, who score political points portraying judges as illegitimate. Almost no one in politics and media tries to explain the reasons given in writing for a decision, which is the judge's own defense of his exercise of power. The judge can't go on TV and explain that reason to you. You're supposed to read it. But you probably won't. You'll probably just listen to someone tell you what the judge did, but nearly everyone offering up that information has an angle. These people are spinners and self-promoters of one kind or another.

Now, I've read the whole text of the speech, which is mostly justifying his bill to bar courts from citing foreign law. It's full of boilerplate about how much he respects judges, but it also excoriates Justice Kennedy for referring to foreign law in Roper v. Simmons to determine that it is "cruel and unusual" punishment to execute a person for a crime he committed when he was less than 18 years old. I don't think the whole context changes things very much. Politicians know the spiciest part of a speech is the sound bite. Edit it out if you don't mean it.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: This post has gotten a lot of attention. (One post that receives two Instapundit links and two Powerline links on the same day? That's some sort of record.) I stand by the precise statements I made, and I call them as I see them. I'm not into backing the Senator or being part of a weird swarm trying to make trouble for the Senator. I see Atrios is writing "this really is a resignation causing statement," and that goes too far. Cornyn should not have said what he said, and he's groveled, so I'd let it go for now. But I note that his new statement has this:
Our judiciary must not be politicized. Rhetoric about the judiciary and about judicial nominees must be toned down.

I'll hold him to that and keep an eye on what he does next. It seems to me that with his bill about judges citing foreign law, he's deeply involved in advancing his career by overstating problems with the judiciary.

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