Friday, April 8, 2005

Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, escalated his talk of a battle between the legislative and judicial branches of government on Thursday, saying federal courts had "run amok," in large part because of the failure of Congress to confront them.

DeLay Says Federal Judiciary Has 'Run Amok,' Adding Congress Is Partly to Blame

April 8, 2005

WASHINGTON, April 7 - Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, escalated his talk of a battle between the legislative and judicial branches of government on Thursday, saying federal courts had "run amok," in large part because of the failure of Congress to confront them.

"Judicial independence does not equal judicial supremacy," Mr. DeLay said in a videotaped speech delivered to a conservative conference in Washington entitled "Confronting the Judicial War on Faith."

Mr. DeLay faulted courts for what he said was their invention of rights to abortion and prohibitions on school prayer, saying courts had ignored the intent of Congress and improperly cited international standards and precedents. "These are not examples of a mature society," he said, "but of a judiciary run amok."

"The failure is to a great degree Congress's," Mr. DeLay said. "The response of the legislative branch has mostly been to complain. There is another way, ladies and gentlemen, and that is to reassert our constitutional authority over the courts."

Mr. DeLay's comments are the latest evidence of his determination to follow through on his vows to hold federal judges accountable in the aftermath of the failure of the federal courts to order the reinsertion of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube as Congressional conservatives intended.

He spoke against the backdrop of a looming confrontation in the Senate over potential changes to the chamber's rules that would end the power of the Democratic minority to filibuster President Bush's judicial nominees. But Mr. DeLay's confrontational tone differed starkly from that of Senator Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader, who says he seeks only to preserve the current independence of the courts and hopes a compromise can avoid a fight to change the rules.

Judges, including Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and one member of the federal appeals court who heard the Schiavo case, have already been sharply critical of Congressional efforts to interfere with their authority as a violation of the Constitution's separation of powers. In a recent report, Chief Justice Rehnquist called one such measure "unwarranted and ill-considered" and said "a judge's judicial acts may not serve as a basis for impeachment."

Democrats and other critics are accusing Republicans of seeking to undermine the courts just because they do not like their decisions.

"The first lesson we teach children when they enter competitive sports is to respect the referee, even if we think he might have made the wrong call," Senator James M. Jeffords, independent of Vermont, said Thursday in a Senate speech. "If our children can understand this, why can't our political leaders? We shouldn't be throwing rhetorical hand grenades."

Mr. DeLay criticized Congress as failing to act vigorously enough. "I believe the judiciary branch of our government has overstepped its authority on countless occasions, overturning and in some cases just ignoring the legitimate will of the people," he said. "Legislatures for too long have in effect washed our hands on controversial issues from abortion to religious expression to racial prejudice, leaving them to judges who we then excoriate for legislating from the bench. This era of constitutional cowardice must end."

Mr. DeLay alluded to Congressional authority to "set the parameters" of courts' jurisdictions and its obligation "to make sure the judges administer their responsibilities."

The organizers of the conference and Congressional staff members who spoke there called for several specific steps: impeaching judges deemed to have ignored the will of Congress or to have followed foreign laws; passing bills to remove court jurisdiction from certain social issues or the place of God in public life; changing Senate rules that allow the Democratic minority to filibuster Mr. Bush's appeals court nominees; and using Congress's authority over court budgets to punish judges whom it considers to have overstepped their authority.

"I am in favor of impeachment," Michael Schwartz, chief of staff to Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, said in a panel discussion on abortion, suggesting "mass impeachment" might be needed.

In an interview, Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the panel was likely in some way to take up the issue of how the federal judges handled Ms. Schiavo's case.

But Mr. Lungren said Mr. DeLay had not requested a hearing and the committee had not decided on a course of action. "There does seem to be this misunderstanding out there that our system was created with a completely independent judiciary," he said.

Dr. Rick Scarborough, chief organizer of the conference, called on Congress "to protect us from an overactive judiciary," saying: "Right now they are ruling as an oligarchy. They are the kings of the land."

Mr. DeLay, who was previously criticized by some Democrats who said his open-ended remarks about holding judges accountable might incite violence, took care to warn the few dozen attendees at the conference to keep their emotions in check.

"As passionately as we all feel, especially about issues of life and death, the fact is that constitutional rule of law is a matter for serious and rational discussion," he said. "People on all sides of this debate need to approach the issue for what it is: a legitimate debate by people of good will trying to clarify the proper constitutional role of courts."