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The Pickering Beat

The embattled judge gets help from some unexpected sources.

11:01 PM, Feb 20, 2002 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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WITH THE Senate out this week, Judge Charles Pickering's embattled nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is getting help from seemingly unexpected sources.

The first is a February 17 editorial in the Washington Post. The Post editorial page is a neoliberal one and if pressed to pronounce yes or no on the nomination, might, after many nuanced paragraphs, come down politely no. But the Post routinely sticks up for due process--fairness, in a word. And so in this editorial the Post, after making sure the reader knows that Pickering wouldn't have been its choice for the Fifth Circuit, goes after "the liberal groups and Democratic senators" who've been trying "to portray him as a Neanderthal [on race]--all the while denying they are doing so."

The Post observes that Pickering's history on race is "actually quite complicated." What the Post means is that it is more complicated than the liberal groups and Democratic senators have made it out to be. No "committed" or "closeted" seg is this Judge Pickering, says the Post, a man who prosecuted the Klan back in the 1960s and testified in open court in 1967 against a major Klan figure, and in recent decades has joined with others of his state in working for racial reconciliation.

The second unexpected source of support for Pickering is the New York Times, which on February 17 led its "National Report" with a story from Laurel, Mississippi, Pickering's hometown. David Firestone reported that in Laurel, "Pickering is a widely admired figure." Indeed, "the city's black establishment overwhelmingly supports his nomination."

It's no secret that journalists with liberal views run the Times. But Firestone's story is the kind I'd expect from news pages supervised by executive editor (and former editorial page editor) Howell Raines, who, like Pickering, grew up in the segregated South (Alabama) and has been known to order up fresh reporting where the story, as here, involves race and the South. This is not to say that Raines, were he still running the editorial page, would actually support Pickering. But Firestone's reporting shreds the left's portrayal of the 64-year-old judge as "an ideological relic of the Old South."

The third source is Dickie Scruggs, the trial lawyer from Pascagoula, Mississippi, who spearheaded the legal challenge to the tobacco industry. Scruggs is a Democrat who has helped raise big money for Democrats. (He is also married to the sister-in-law of Senate minority leader Trent Lott, Pickering's friend and biggest supporter.) But, as Roll Call's Paul Kane reported on February 18, Scruggs is upset with the way his fellow trial-lawyer, Democratic senator John Edwards, queried Pickering about a 1994 cross-burning case. Actually, it is more accurate to say that Edwards skewered Pickering, a long-time friend of Scruggs's, twisting and even botching facts (detailed by National Review Online's Byron York) to portray the judge in the worst light possible. Scruggs, who took in Edwards's over-the-top performance from his seat in the hearing room, told Roll Call that he might withdraw his support for Edwards, who has presidential ambitions, and encourage his trial-lawyer brethren not to back him. Trial lawyers, it should be noted, have been heavy contributors to Edwards. Whether or not Scruggs carries out his threats, at least he called Edwards on his deplorable behavior.

Thanks to the Post, the Times, and Dickie Scruggs, things are looking up for Judge Pickering. At least this week they are. The Senate will be back in session next week.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.