Sen. John Cornyn said yesterday that recent examples of courthouse violence may be linked to public anger over judges who make politically charged decisions without being held accountable.
In a Senate floor speech in which he sharply criticized a recent Supreme Court ruling on the death penalty, Cornyn (R-Tex.) -- a former Texas Supreme Court justice and member of the Judiciary Committee -- said Americans are growing increasingly frustrated by what he describes as activist jurists.
"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," he said. Sometimes, he said, "the Supreme Court has taken on this role as a policymaker rather than an enforcer of political decisions made by elected representatives of the people."
Cornyn continued: "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. . . . 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, engage in violence. Certainly without any justification, but a concern that I have."
Cornyn, who spoke in a nearly empty chamber, did not specify cases of violence against judges. Two fatal episodes made headlines this year, although authorities said the motives appeared to be personal, not political. In Chicago, a man fatally shot the husband and mother of a federal judge who had ruled against him in a medical malpractice suit. And in Atlanta last month, a man broke away from a deputy and fatally shot four people, including the judge presiding over his rape trial.
Liberal activists criticized Cornyn's remarks, and compared them to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's comments last week following the death of a brain-damaged Florida woman, Terri Schiavo. DeLay (R-Tex.) rebuked federal and state judges who had ruled in the Schiavo case, saying, "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."
Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, said last night that Cornyn, "like Tom DeLay, should know better. These kinds of statements are irresponsible and could be seen by some as justifying inexcusable conduct against our courts." The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee called the senator's remarks "an astounding account of the recent spate of violence against judges, suggesting that the crimes could be attributed to the fact that judges are 'unaccountable' to the public."
Cornyn spokesman Don Stewart declined to speculate on what instances of violence the senator had in mind. "He was talking about things that have come up and concerned him," Stewart said.
In his speech, Cornyn criticized the Supreme Court's 5 to 4 decision on March 1 that said it is unconstitutional to execute people who were under 18 when they committed their crimes. "In so holding," Cornyn said, "the U.S. Supreme Court said: We are no longer going to leave this in the hands of jurors. We do not trust jurors. We are no longer going to leave this up to the elected representatives of the people of the respective states."
In a recent New York Times article, John Kane, a senior judge in the U.S. District Court for Colorado, wrote: "Since 1970, 10 state and federal judges have been murdered, seven of them in job-related incidents. Those who threaten judges are almost always disturbed individuals seeking revenge. . . . Of the three federal judges killed in the last quarter-century, all were killed by men disgruntled with their treatment from the federal judicial system."