Mention the name Charles Pickering to anyone but the most committed news junkie, and you're apt to get a blank look or, at best, one of dim recognition. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle aimed at the ever-shortening attention span, the bitter Senate battles over the federal judiciary in which Pickering played so dramatic a part a few years back can seem like ancient history.
But with the publication of A Price Too High, Pickering's insider account of the nearly four years he spent in limbo as a nominee to the federal bench, as Democrats and their press enablers trashed his record and reputation, we're reminded of how extraordinarily much is at stake in the ongoing battle for control of the nation's courts; and how far one side, at least, is willing to go to win the battle. Liberals are no longer even coy about using the courts to achieve social engineering ends that they cannot get through democratic means. "Environmentalists, prison reformers and consumer advocates have learned that what can't be won in the legislature or executive may be achievable in a federal district court where a sympathetic judge sits," liberal Wise Man Joe Califano wrote in a 2001 Washington Post editorial. Conservative Wise Man C. Boyden Gray, quoted in Pickering's book, notes that Nan Aron, president of the liberal activist group Alliance for Justice, unapologetically echoed that view during a debate at the Federalist Society. According to Gray, she said that with Republicans at the time in control of Congress "we have to look to the courts to create new rights that we won't be able to get from the legislature."
It's hard to imagine a more direct challenge to Republicans and their professed beliefs than judicial activism. If recent history is any guide, the issue serves Republicans well at the polls. Yet control of the courts has all but disappeared from the party's radar over the past several years, reflecting the GOP's amazing aimlessness and desertion of principle.
That's why it is well worth revisiting the Pickering case in its ugly but highly illuminating particulars. If ever there was a poster boy for the kind of judge that Senate Democrats and their left-of-center, activist allies will fight to the political death to keep off the bench—the better to install judges who share their social agenda—it comes in the unlikely person of this gracious grandfather of 21. More dramatically than any confirmation battle in memory, the Pickering case demonstrates that liberals will seemingly say anything—and tarnish even the most sterling character—to keep control of the nation's courts.
Harry Stein is a contributing editor of City Journal and author of eight books. The New York Times Book Review called his recent memoir, How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy: (And Found Inner Peace), "a wickedly funny and moral book." He has also written for numerous publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Playboy, GQ, and Esquire, for which he created the "Ethics" column. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.