The justices' office suite is a quiet place, insulated from the noise of Spring Street. When I was at the Times just down the street, the justices used to invite me over occasionally to give them tips on dealing with the press. Not that they needed it. Reporters seldom came calling to inquire about their heavily legalistic and usually non-controversial decisions.
But these days no judge is safe from the assault of the religious right, anti-government crusaders and law and order zealots. And, as a result of the reach and speed of the Internet, the most obscure fringe group can spread its message as if it were a fast moving virus, penetrating even the second floor of the Reagan building.
The Terry Schiavo Case, prayer, gay relationships and abortion decisions have prompted vicious attacks on the courts. On each of these issues, the radical right have gone after the courts and judges, rather than the legal reasoning behind the decisions.
These assaults from the conservative evangelical Christian bloc -- the Republicans' much heralded base -- has prompted retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Republican appointed by President Reagan, to warn that the independence of judges, and the rights of all Americans, are threatened by such attacks, as is the freedom of us all. It was an unusually forthright speech, given earlier this year and reported by the only journalist present, Nina Totenberg, NPR's legal affairs correspondent.
I didn't pay much attention until I received a call from one of the appellate justices. He told me that there was much concern in the legal community because of far-right slates urging a no vote on some of the justices. The governor appoints the justices, and whenever they seek another term, they are on the ballot to be confirmed or rejected by the voters with a yes or no vote. Judges are on Tuesday's ballot. Judges are non-partisan, and governors, from Arnold Schwarzenegger back to his predecessors, have appointed Republicans and Democrats to the bench.
At first, I wasn't especially interested. Why pay attention to fringe groups? But the appellate judge kept after me. Then I got a call from a lawyer who said the situation was of special importance to the Jewish community. Her point: We're people of the law. And in this country, the law, a Constitution that separates religion from the state, has protected our beliefs.
Searching through the web, I came to the site of California Christians.net also known as californiachristians.blogspot.com. It cited "God's rules for elections." You can't argue with some of them -- "able, knowledgeable, capable, experienced." But one, the "overarching qualification," stopped me, "candidates are to be chosen by the top religious leadership of the community." Nine of the 18 appellate judges did not make the cut. Readers of the site were urged to vote no on them.
The Republican Party of Los Angeles County, long a bastion of conservative thought and action, got into the act, too, urging no votes on most of the same judges.
This is not a tidal wave. But it's a start. First on right wing talk radio and now on the Internet, a network of like believers pushes these attacks and it's a mistake to write them off as extremist nuts.
Take Ronald Branson of North Hollywood, founder and self described jailer-in-chief of J.A.I.L., an organization dedicated to weakening the judiciary.
His web autobiography, recalling his time in the military, noted that part of his service "was spent as a prison chaser over prisoners at Fort Belvoir, Va. He presided over work details and regularly strip-searched the prisoners.... and took on the reputation as the strictest Prison Chaser within the prison compound.... "
Bronson's J.A.I.L proposal, as described by Bert Brandenburg in Slate magazine, would create special grand juries that would indict judges for offenses such as "deliberate disregard of material facts," "judicial acts without jurisdiction," and "blocking of a lawful conclusion of a case," along with judicial failure to impanel a jury for infractions as minor as a dog-license violation. After three such "convictions," the judge would be fired and docked half of his or her retirement benefits for good measure.
In another time, Branson, ignored by the mainstream media, would have labored in obscurity in North Hollywood. But that was before the Internet.
Today, a similar proposal is Amendment E on the South Dakota ballot, put there by signatures of the voters. And the jailer-in-chief and his Internet and talk radio followers are planning to spread their virus to other states. This is a threat to all of us, especially to people like our forebears, who came here to escape the church-dominated governments of Europe and their officially sanctioned anti-Semitism.
Bill Boyarsky's column on Jews and civic life appears each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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