Judges in the hot seat

Every branch of government has been straining under the pressure of the struggle for the presidency, and not least of all, the judiciary.

Jurists - from a circuit court judge in Leon County, Fla., to the highest court in the land - were aware of having been handed the awesome duty of possibly determining who will govern this country.

They knew that, however they decided, they would incur the wrath of a large number of Americans who no longer regard their judges as Solomonic. It was enough to make a jurist flinch behind his robe.

The fate of the presidency in the hands of jurists is a rarity. In 1974, federal district court judge John J. Sirica, backed by a unanimous Supreme Court, with William Rehnquist abstaining, forced President Nixon to release the Oval Office tapes that led to his resignation. Actually, that only accelerated an outcome that impeachment and conviction would undoubtedly have brought about.

The Supreme Court also upheld the right of Paula Jones to sue President Clinton - one link in the chain of circumstances that led to his impeachment.

The present US Supreme Court, faced with having to rule on the decision of the Florida Supreme Court permitting a ballot recount and postponing the certification of Gov. George W. Bush, chose to preserve its own harmony and standing with the public by punting to Tallahassee.

More damaging to Vice President Gore was the sweeping rejection of his appeal for a vote recount by circuit court judge N. Sanders Sauls.

Our judiciary, which would like to see itself as standing above the fray, is finding its legitimacy - like that of Congress and the president - under attack. House Republican conservatives, led by Tom DeLay, are urging a constitutional amendment that would permit broader power to impeach judges.

Former Judge Robert Bork, who failed to be confirmed to the Supreme Court himself, wants an amendment permitting federal and state judges to be overruled by a congressional majority.

It says something that 66 federal judgeships are vacant, and 41 nominations by President Clinton have been languishing, some for many months.

Now judges are being told not only to follow the election returns, but to help make them. That's enough to make any judge nervous.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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