The nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has already achieved a boon for our political culture: It has helped leading liberals and Democrats to discover that being tarred as a racist on flimsy grounds is unfair and deeply unpleasant. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for example, when asked on "Face the Nation" to respond to Rush Limbaugh's and Newt Gingrich's comments about Sotomayor, said, "That's an absolutely terrible thing to throw around. Based on that statement -- that one word 'better than' (sic) -- to call someone a racist is just terrible and I would hope that Republicans would not do this."
Sen. Feinstein is right as far she went. She avoided one undeniable fact though. If a white male nominee had been discovered to have said something similar -- that he was better situated to judge due to his background and life experiences than a Latina woman -- he would be cashiered so fast as to induce whiplash. Those are the unwritten rules that Limbaugh and Gingrich are attempting, one suspects, to expose for their one-sidedness. Nevertheless, the instant labeling of the woman, based on one unwise remark, is hardly fair. If Democrats are learning this now, that's excellent news. One hopes they will remember this discovery when the wheel turns and a Republican nominee is before the Senate. Certainly they didn't seem to get it as recently as 2002, when President Bush nominated Judge Charles Pickering to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Then-Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Judge Pickering had displayed an "insensitivity to civil rights, to equal rights, especially to minorities. ... This (nomination) lays bare the administration's real position on civil rights." Leading liberal newspapers tolled the bell with headlines like "Extremist Judge Unfit to Sit on Appeals Court" in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and "Say No to This Throwback" in the Los Angeles Times.
The Democrats succeeded in torpedoing Pickering's nomination -- not to mention assassinating his character. More than "insensitive," he was called a crypto racist with a "segregationist past" (Paul Krugman). When President Bush offered Judge Pickering a recess appointment to avoid a Senate filibuster, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., breathed fire: "Here we are, on the weekend before a national holiday when we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday, and George W. Bush celebrates it by appointing Charles Pickering, a known forceful advocate for a cross-burner in America, to the federal court of the United States."
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.