U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow criticized “some Members of Congress” on Wednesday for attacking the motives of federal judges, less than three months after her husband and mother were slain by a disgruntled claimant.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the need to increase security for judges, Lefkow pleaded with committee members “to publicly and persistently repudiate gratuitous attacks on the judiciary,” specifically statements made by Members of Congress and televangelist Pat Robertson.
“In this age of mass communication, harsh rhetoric is truly dangerous,” Lefkow said. “It seems to me that even though we cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship between rhetorical attacks on judges in general, and violent acts of vengeance by a particular litigant, fostering disrespect for judges can only encourage those that are on the edge, or the fringe, to exact revenge on a judge who ruled against them.”
The gunman who killed Lefkow’s husband and mother on Feb. 28 was on the losing end of a medical malpractice case she presided over.
Lefkow did not mention any Member by name in her testimony, but sources said she was referring to statements made by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
Cornyn made an April 4 floor speech in which he charged that the judiciary was becoming politicized “at the highest levels” and openly wondered whether this is the reason for the rash of violence against judges.
“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,” Cornyn said in the floor speech last month. He then added, “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, certainly without any justification, but that is a concern I have that I wanted to share.”
The next day, Cornyn took to the floor again, saying that his April 4 speech had been misinterpreted.
“I regret that my remarks have been taken out of context to create a wrong impression about my position, and possibly be construed to contribute to the problem rather than to a solution,” he said. “Our judiciary must not be politicized. Rhetoric about the judiciary and about judicial nominees must be toned down. Our broken judicial confirmation process must be fixed once and for all.”
But Cornyn’s April 5 statement did not satisfy Lefkow. The judge sent Cornyn a letter April 7 asking him to further clarify his remarks, according to a spokesman to Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Cornyn, said the Senator has not received the letter.
“Given the mail security precautions, it is not surprising an April 7 letter is not yet here,” Stewart said.
Cornyn himself declined to address the question of whether Lefkow was referring to him in her testimony Wednesday, noting that the judge never once mentioned his name.
“Let’s be fair about this: If you are going to say she said something, and she didn’t say it, then that is a misrepresentation,” he said. “I am not interested in talking.”
This week, Lefkow referred questions about the letter to Durbin, her state’s senior Senator. The Durbin spokesman said that Lefkow did not want to release the text of the letter, but he added that the judge asked him to characterize its language.
“The judge says she understands Cornyn believes he was taken out of context, but she sought a more complete explanation about what he really meant,” the spokesman said. “The letter was clearly emotional and from the heart.”
In her testimony, Lefkow made an oblique reference to Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman who was at the center of a Congressional debate over whether her husband should be allowed to have her feeding tube removed. In an unusual move, Congress intervened on the matter, but Schiavo eventually died after state and federal judges refused to issue an order to keep feeding her.
DeLay, who took a high-profile role in the fight to try to save Schiavo’s life, chastised the judges and said “the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.”
He also described the judicial system as “an arrogant, out-of-control, unaccountable judiciary that thumbed their noses at Congress and the president.”
“Majority Leader DeLay has never threatened judges,” said Dan Allen, a DeLay spokesman. “He has made it clear he believes in an independent judiciary and the Constitution states the legislative branch has oversight responsibilities of the judiciary as well as the executive branch.”
Judiciary Democrats seized upon Lefkow’s testimony and sought to paint Republicans and their allies as supporting inflammatory rhetoric directed toward judges.
“Shockingly, the risks faced by the honorable men and women who fill our independent judiciary have dramatically increased in the past two months,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in a statement released at the hearing by his office. “The source of that increased risk has not been Al Qaeda, white supremacists, drug gangs or mentally ill litigants. Instead, judges are at greater risk of being victimized today than four weeks ago due to venomous incitement from Republican members of Congress and their right-wing extremist surrogates.”
Neither Kennedy nor Cornyn were present during Lefkow’s testimony.
Durbin, who did attend the hearing, singled out DeLay, Robertson and others for their “harsh verbal attacks on federal judges.” He did not mention Cornyn.
Robertson, founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, recently came under fire for saying on ABC’s “This Week” that federal judges pose a bigger threat to the nation than the terrorists who struck on Sept. 11, 2001.
“If you look over the course of a hundred years, I think the gradual erosion of the consensus that’s held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings,” Robertson told the news program.