Rehnquist Should Take Out a Restraining Order

The latest of many possible candidates for the Supreme Court to have his name floated is Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). It's pretty clear what kind of justice Cornyn would be. He's been a good soldier for the Bush machine in Texas, and has said that the Supreme Court should merely be "an enforcer of political decisions made by elected representatives" (see below); elsewhere, he said that courts should "obey a legislature's directives." If he follows his own rhetoric, he would be a rather subservient political hack on the court, less likely than Scalia or even Thomas to cut the occasional independent path. But Cornyn has recently become notorious for these comments (made within weeks of the murder of a Chicago judge's mother and husband and the courthouse killing of an Atlanta judge):

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. And no one...including the judges on the United States Supreme Court, should be surprised if one of us stands up and objects.

And, Mr. President, I'm going to make clear that I object to some of the decision-making process that is occurring at the United States Supreme Court today.... I believe that insofar as the Supreme Court has taken on this role as a policy-maker rather than an enforcer of political decisions made by elected representatives of the people, it has led to the increasing divisiveness and bitterness of our confirmation fights....It has generated a lack of respect for judges generally....

But they can't vote against a judge because judges aren't elected. They serve for a lifetime on the federal bench. And, indeed, I believe this increasing politicalization of the judicial decision-making process at the highest levels of our judiciary have bred a lack of respect for some of the people that wear the robe. And that is a national tragedy.

And finally, I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country. Certainly nothing new, but we seem to have run through a spate of courthouse violence recently that's been on the news. And I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters on some occasions where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in violence. Certainly without any justification, but a concern that I have that I wanted to share.

Since Cornyn himself has extensive experience as a judge, and has been one of the Administration's most vocal and vociferous allies in its attempt to get every single one of its nominees confirmed, it would be fair to assume that he wasn't warning (or was it "threatening"?) his conservative allies on the bench about their high-handed political activism. Only judges Cornyn disagrees with need to worry about their personal safety.

Which makes one wonder about the latest Supreme Court decision on medical marijuana. William Rehnquist, now universally referred to as the "ailing chief justice" and expected to step down soon, voted in the minority -- that is, against the decision upholding the power of the federal government to imprison people who, under state law, exercise their right to use or distribute medical marijuana. Rehnquist and the two justices who voted with him (Thomas and O'Connor) are at least maintaining a certain consistency on states' rights (unlike Scalia).

(It's worth noting that Rehnquist currently suffers from cancer, and that cancer patients who smoke pot to help control pain are at the center of the debate over medical marijuana. I haven't heard anybody suggest that the chief justice has been toking up, though.)

Given Cornyn's apparent views about what should happen to judges he disagrees with, Rehnquist might want to make sure he's never left alone with the guy.

Not that Cornyn has much of a reputation as a drug warrior (opposing gay marriage is more his style -- though apparently he's NOT against marrying box turtles). It's safe to say, however, that he would not vote for a couple of bills sponsored in the House by fellow Texans: Republican Ron Paul's States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act and Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee's recent "No More Tulias" bill, which would put curbs on the out-of-control drug warriors at the state level. Based on 2001 Texas legislation, it would, among other things, require corroborating witnesses to convict anyone caught in undercover drug sting operations. (Grits for Breakfast blogger Scott Henson worked on the latter bill.)

Cornyn's tangential involvement in the infamous Tulia, Texas, drug busts that inspired the Texas law probably tells you something about him as well. In the late 1990s, a down-on-his-luck, sometime deputy sheriff named Tom Coleman claimed to have broken up a bizarrely active drug ring in the small Panhandle town. In 1999, 46 of the town's 250 African-American citizens (nearly half the black adult population) were charged with drug dealing, and 38 were eventually convicted-all solely on Coleman's say-so, without corroborating testimony from anyone, and even though none of the people charged was arrested in possession of drugs, drug paraphernalia, or weapons. For his heroics, Coleman was presented with the "Texas Lawman of the Year" award by none other than then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn.

Over the next few years, however, the Tulia cases began to unravel, not least due to the investigative gaze of the Texas Observer's Nate Blakeslee. One supposed perp was proved to have been in Oklahoma City, hundreds of miles away, when the drug deal she was being tried for was going down. Coleman's novel policing tactics probably didn't help-for example, he repeatedly misidentified defendants in court, and during his undercover investigation he took notes on his legs "and other body parts" (I'm not speculating). After years of silence and the start of a federal investigation, and in the heat of a campaign for the U.S. Senate, Cornyn finally announced a state probe into the Tulia arrests, denounced by many as too late and politically motivated. In 2003 all 38 convictions were thrown out, and last January Coleman was convicted of perjury. (And yet Texas cops seem to have learned nothing: see the October 2004 bust of 72 supposed crack dealers in a small East Texas town, again reported by Grits for Breakfast.)