P ersonal trauma can cloud one’s judgment, so we can to some degree forgive U.S. District Court Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow for recently
urging members of Congress to do something to curb public criticism of federal judges.
Lefkow’s husband and mother were recently killed by a deranged man who blamed her for a life turned sour. The attacks were not politically motivated. Yet somehow, Lefkow has drawn a link between the killings and recent criticisms of the federal judiciary by Republicans, in a way that unnecessarily inflames the debate.
While we wouldn’t expect that members of Congress would rebuke a grieving widow for her ill-considered opinions, given the personal trauma she’s been through, we’re surprised how little controversy Lefkow’s
comments generated and that no one stepped forward to challenge them.
“Even though we cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship between rhetorical attacks … and violent acts of vengeance (against judges), fostering disrespect for judges can only encourage those that are on the edge … to exact revenge on a judge who displeases them,” Lefkow told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We need your help in tempering the tone of debates that concern the independence of the judiciary,” she said. “In this age of mass communication, harsh rhetoric is truly
No more dangerous, in our view, than a judge who believes the government has any role to play in curbing harsh rhetoric, even when it’s directed at judges, or
curtailing free expression simply because an individual “on the edge” might use political speech to excuse acts of violence or criminality.
Lefkow cited remarks made by Pat Robertson about liberal judges “destroying a fabric that holds our nation together” and posing a threat “probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings.” Such rhetoric is obviously strident and stupid. But no more so than what we’ve heard from many members of Congress when caught up in the heat of political battle, or the slurs used against President Bush’s judicial
nominees during the filibuster fracas.
By the judge’s own admission, no causal link exists between the national debate about a politicized judiciary and two recent acts of violence against judges. And in fact, Lefkow could cite only five attacks on federal judges in the past 25 years — nothing to scoff at but
certainly not suggestive of an epidemic of anti-judge
That judges become targets isn’t surprising, given the incredible power they wield in this overly litigious land, where not just every legal, but every political dispute is settled in court. And as “activists” on the bench
increasingly are perceived as law-makers, rather than impartial arbiters of legal disputes, one might expect a political backlash against them. Lefkow’s message seems to be that the federal judiciary, although already the least accountable branch of government, should also be immune from strong criticism — depriving Americans of one of the few means they have for registering their
disapproval of an all-powerful bench.
Lefkow stopped short of lobbying for legal sanction against Americans who “foster disrespect” for judges, understanding, perhaps, that it would be unseemly for a supposed protector of the Constitution to be undermining the First Amendment in such a blatant fashion.
We can feel for Lefkow on a personal level, and agree with that part of her testimony that pushed for better courthouse security. But when she suggests that judges should be beyond rebuke, or that Americans who criticize judges are somehow complicit in fomenting violence against them, she’s way out of line and should be called on it.