A Press Conference for Theocracy

A Press Conference for Theocracy
April 26, 2005

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Two white Republican U.S. senators and a group of largely African-American preachers held a press conference in the U.S. Capitol building on Tuesday to demand a vote on the nomination of Janice Rogers Brown to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Brown’s is one of the nominations that Democratic senators are opposing by means of the filibuster.

Because the Democrats are in the minority, even if they could discipline their own party members, they could not defeat a nomination in a vote requiring only a simple majority. The filibuster allows the minority party a check on majority control, by requiring 60 of 100 votes to end it.

The preachers participating in Tuesday’s press conference huddled outside the Capitol beforehand for some words of preparation from Derek McCoy, VP for Development at the High Impact Leadership Coalition, www.himpactus.com. McCoy told the eight or so people with him that their message should not be opposition to the filibuster, but simply a demand for a “fair vote.”

I probably wasn’t supposed to be listening in on this, but I caught up to McCoy as he was headed into the building and asked him what it meant to demand a vote but not oppose the filibuster. “If they keep filibustering,” I pointed out, “then you don’t get a vote, right?” He acknowledged the point but didn’t answer the question. He said it was unfair to require 60 votes and that there were lots of vacancies on the courts.

So, I asked him if he favored keeping the filibuster power for minority parties in general but opposed this particular use of it. He said that that was not his position, but he failed to elaborate on what his position was.

When we arrived at the room for the press conference, a backdrop had been set up with the words “Fair Up or Down Vote” printed all over it. Clearly someone had determined that that was the winning message. And clearly someone had spent money to make props. Further distinguishing this press conference from a left-wing press conference, there weren’t many people here: no volunteer activists or allies, just the group of a dozen presenters. But there were reporters and a half dozen television cameras and a half dozen still cameras that snapped shots constantly through the event.

A staffer from Senator Harry Reid’s (Dem., NV) office handed out information credited to the Alliance for Justice, http://www.allianceforjustice.org, which listed hundreds of organizations opposed to Brown’s nomination, including civil rights groups, labor unions, environmental groups, and a variety of other organizations. The handout also included some choice quotations from the justice herself, such as one declaring that there is a “war” between religious people and the rest of America.

Senator Jeff Sessions (Rep., AL) spoke first and moderated the press conference. He said that Brown had grown up poor in Alabama, and that we should consider her character and her personal qualities, not her positions. He stressed that in the year 2002, Brown had written more majority opinions than anyone else on the California Supreme Court. “How is that extreme?” he asked. “Particularly when you’re talking about the CALIFORNIA Supreme Court? And she is a person of faith, which is something we should celebrate, not denigrate.”

But most of the accusations that she is extreme have had little to do with her “faith,” and have tended to make clear the importance of looking at a nominee’s actual work. The Natural Resources Defense Council has said of Brown:

“She has displayed open hostility to the very concept of regulating private interests for the public good. She has urged a radical expansion of the takings clause, arguing that ‘property and liberty are, upon examination, one and the same thing’ and that ‘private property, already an endangered species in California, is now entirely extinct in San Francisco.’… Justice Brown has also compared the modem regulatory state to ‘slavery’; opined that ‘adherence to natural law is the essential element of the American birthright’; and complained that the Supreme Court decisions that upheld the New Deal (and ended Lochner era judicial activism) marked ‘the triumph of our own socialist revolution.'”

People for the American Way and the NAACP released a report on Brown http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/dfiles/file_229.pdf and a statement about it http://www.blackcommentator.com/54/54_female_clarence.html, which includes this:

“The report, ‘Loose Cannon,’ notes that when Brown was nominated to the state supreme court in 1996, she was found unqualified by the state bar evaluation committee, based not only on her relative inexperience but also because she was ‘prone to inserting conservative political views into her appellate opinions’ and based on complaints that she was ‘insensitive to established precedent.’

“The report carefully examines Brown’s record since she joined the court, especially her numerous dissenting opinions concerning civil and constitutional rights. Brown’s many disturbing dissents, often not joined by a single other justice, make it clear that she would use the power of an appeals court seat to try to erect significant barriers for victims of discrimination to seek justice in the courts, and to push an agenda that would undermine privacy, equal protection under the law, environmental protection, and much more.”

None of this was discussed at the press conference, which focused on two things: Brown being a “person of faith,” and the need to give her a “fair vote.” The poverty of her childhood and the fact that she is black were also discussed, but not a word was said about her thoughts on free speech or corporate regulation or workers’ rights or environmental protection.

Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas spoke very briefly, saying that Brown “deserves a vote,” that she’s a “great judge,” and that she has excellent qualifications. The only detail he offered about what her qualifications were came when he asked the audience to consider “particularly what she’s persevered through.”

Bishop Harry Jackson suggested that Brown was being opposed because of race and class bias. “All of America needs to be represented,” he said. “It’s time for real morality to reign and people of conviction to be put in office.”

Vivian Berryhill, President and Founder of the National Coalition of Pastors’ Spouses, spoke very briefly and suggested that “everyone deserves an opportunity.”

Pastor Lyle Dukes pointed out that his own parents had participated in sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., and argued that if Brown “doesn’t get an opportunity, then the word democracy doesn’t mean what it says it means.”

Dukes said that Brown “has had a balanced and fair approach.” Presumably Fox News will appreciate this variation on its slogan and not sue the poor pastor the way it did Al Franken.

The final speaker was Pastor Rod Parsley, who identified himself as the founder of the Center for Moral Clarity, http://www.centerformoralclarity.net/. The words that are intended to protect faith, he said, are being used to attack it. Parsley made clear that he had in mind the text of the First Amendment. Of Brown, he said, “She’s a woman of abiding faith, and she absolutely must not be asked to leave that faith on the courthouse steps….She should be confirmed or rejected.” Parsley said that Brown was needed to “restore the rapidly declining stature of the federal judiciary.”

For a moment it looked as if the question and answer period would be skipped for the lack of any questions. The presentations had been so quick that perhaps the reporters in the room were not ready. Eventually an AP reporter asked about ongoing negotiations between Republicans and Democrats over the filibuster question.

Senator Sessions replied merely that Senator Bill Frist (Rep., TN) had proposed “allowing an up or down vote.” Sessions gave the impression that the filibuster was a brand new invention. “Requiring a super majority is something we’ve never done before. It would destroy checks and balances. It would diminish the power of the executive and judiciary and increase the power of the legislature.” It’s possible that Sessions’ point of reference was far away, since he accidentally referred to “the spirit of the Alabama, er, U.S. Constitution.”

Another reporter questioned whether the speakers really believed that race was a factor in the Democrats’ opposition. Jackson answered without answering, and said that “African Americans often think that it is.”

A third reporter said “I’m confused, because the issue of religion did not come up in the debate over her nomination. Why is it an issue here?”

Sessions asked her to clarify the question.

“Why,” she asked, “did those here say that this had to do with her faith?”

A few of the speakers murmured at once, “I didn’t hear anyone say that,” “I didn’t hear that.”

I’m pretty sure I heard muffled laughter from the press on this one. Certainly I’m grateful I didn’t have a mouthful of milk at that moment.

Jackson tried to clarify: “It really has more to do with our faith….We’ve been anointed by the community to speak for them….” Dukes chimed in with something about how “the spiritual under girds the moral.”

They called for one last question, so I asked whether the speakers were opposed to this particular filibuster or to the power to filibuster across the board. Sessions answered, without answering, that they were seeing a new and unfair use of the filibuster.

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