Injudicious LanguageHouston Chronicle Editorial
April 7, 2005,
It's hard to imagine any elected official, much less Sen. John Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court justice and state attorney general, making a speech on the Senate floor suggesting that recent incidents of violence directed against judges might be caused by jurists who make "political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public."
Although Cornyn did say such violence is unjustified, his statement implied that judges bring such harm on themselves by ruling improperly. According to Cornyn, "It causes a lot of people, including me, great distress to see judges use the authority that they have been given to make raw political or ideological decisions."
Cornyn's comments followed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's recent warning that judges will "answer for their behavior" in declining to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case before her death. Such rhetoric creates a climate in which unstable individuals might think attacks on judges are deserved, if not actually condoned.
If officials made similar statements professing understanding for the motives of terrorists, they would be rightly denounced as unpatriotic. Yet individuals who threaten or seek to harm members of this country's independent judiciary are, like terrorists, striking at a fundamental principle of our democratic system.
Cornyn attempts to excuse his remarks by saying he was only wondering aloud. Even the junior senator from Texas should know that more is expected on the floor of the world's greatest debating society. He said he was surprised at the reaction, but that is less an apology than regret that he has been criticized.
The campaign by Republicans to allow Congress to dictate to the judiciary in specific cases such as Schiavo violates the constitutionally mandated separation of powers among executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Judges are bound by their oath of office to follow the law, not the opinions of elected officials playing to particular constituencies. In their attack on the judiciary, Cornyn and DeLay are really calling for their own version of politically inspired judicial activism.
What makes Cornyn's statement impossible to fathom is that politics was not the motive in recent cases in which killers targeted judges. A rapist escaping from a courthouse in Atlanta shot and killed a state judge and three other people. A ruling in a medical malpractice case led to the murder of the mother and husband of a Chicago federal judge by a mentally unbalanced plaintiff who later killed himself. The only common thread in these cases is the tragedy of jurists who paid a very high price for their devotion to public service.
Sen. Cornyn and Rep. DeLay owe the country — and its dedicated judges — unconditional apologies and specific disavowal of their insensitive and irresponsible remarks.