In point of fact, Judge Pickering had been a friend to civil rights throughout his career. To its credit, the New York Times actually quoted longtime associates of the judge and members of the black community in Pickering's hometown who "overwhelmingly support his nomination . . . and admire his efforts at racial reconciliation." The black chairman of the city council told the Times, "I can't believe the man they're describing in Washington is the same one I've known for years." They recalled that as a young prosecutor in 1967, Pickering had endangered his career (and perhaps more) by testifying in court against the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He was known for hiring black staffers at a time when few white Mississippians did. Pickering encouraged the chancellor of University of Mississippi to form the Institute for Racial Reconciliation and served on its board for many years. Pickering, unlike some white southerners (and many Democrats currently serving in Congress), chose to send his children to integrated public schools.
Pickering did preside over the trial of three young men who burned a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple. Byron York's excellent account in National Review reveals that Pickering was dismayed by the Justice Department's decision to negotiate plea bargains with two of the defendants (including the one Pickering regarded as the ringleader) and recommend no jail time for them, while asking for seven and a half years for the remaining defendant. One of those permitted to plea to a misdemeanor was clearly a racist who had earlier shot a gun into a black man's home, gotten into fights with black students at school, and convinced his drunk comrades to burn the cross. Pickering did not think it was just to let him off and sentence the other defendant, for whom this was a first offense, to more than seven years. He sentenced him to 27 months, admonishing the defendant that "the type of conduct you exhibited cannot and will not be tolerated ... I would suggest to you that during the time you're in prison that you do some reading on race relations and maintaining good race relations and how that can be done."
Yet, without blushing, John Kerry transmogrified Judge Pickering into "a forceful advocate for a cross-burner."
Judge Sonia Sotomayor deserves careful vetting by the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She may or may not deserve their vote. But those Republicans should seize this teachable moment to remember all of the fine candidates -- Pickering, Miguel Estrada, Robert Bork -- and many more who were so shamefully treated by the Democrats who have suddenly discovered the evil of baseless accusations.
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