Naked City

Off the Desk

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert once described federal Judge Edith Jones as a throwback to the Dark Ages. Jones' speech at the UT Law School Tuesday -- as a guest of the right-wing Federalist Society -- suggests that Herbert is right. The judge called for a reformation that would restore the religious underpinnings of the law. She attacked "a moral relativism tending toward nihilism, a pragmatism tending toward an amoral instrumentalism, a realism tending toward cynicism, an individualism tending toward atomism and a faith in reason ..." All pretty heady stuff for law students offered Papa John's Pizza, soft drinks, and the opportunity to meet a judge on George W. Bush's short list of nominees for the Supreme Court.

The Judge even infused some conventional religion into the very late Thomas Jefferson: "It was the view of near -- of all the framers, including Thomas Jefferson -- that there was a natural and higher order governed by a creator, which is the ultimate source of law and morality. It is that connection between morality, religion, and self-government that I think we need to recover ..." (In an aside directed at the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would vet her nomination to the High Court, Jones insisted she wouldn't breach what remains of the wall separating church and state. "I'm not making a constitutional claim here ... the framers did not say that the Constitution is not a secular document.")

Jones' remarks were not limited to religious and philosophical antecedents. She attacked industry-wide lawsuits (such as the tobacco suit that netted this state $17 billion to pay for the medical expenses we've incurred treating tobacco-related illnesses), class action suits, which she called "redistributive justice" that "lines the pockets of lawyers," and workplace suits dealing with racial or sexual discrimination. "The number of employment suits is rising as the economy is prospering," Jones said. "Why not take simply a better second job as revenge than go and file a lawsuit against your employer?"

Even if the judge meant a finding new job rather than moonlighting, she has no sympathy for workers who sue employers. In 1988, Jones was the dissenter in a 2-1 decision in favor of a woman who sued because her supervisor and others had propositioned and groped her, and placed pornographic material in her locker. When the plaintiff's lawyer complained that "one of the guys pinched [his client's] breast," Jones was unmoved. "Well," she said, "he apologized."

The judge failed to mention executions, though she recently reversed the decision of Judge David Hittner, a conservative Houston Republican who ruled that Calvin Burdine didn't get a fair trial because his attorney slept through parts of it. Hittner also observed that the sleeping attorney, the late Joe Cannon, might have objected when the prosecutor said of Burdine, who is gay, that: "sending a homosexual to the penitentiary [for life] certainly isn't a very bad punishment for a homosexual." (Cannon was awake at a post-trial hearing, when he referred to Burdine and other gay men as "queers," "fairies," and "tush hogs.") Burdine's case continues on further appeal.

In fact, but for a small group that arrived too late for pizza, Judge Jones would have avoided the death penalty issue altogether. Just as the judge concluded her list of "isms" threatening Western Civilization, with "moral relativism tending toward nihilism," in they marched, like Visigoths crossing the Danube, six nihilists from the Coalition to End the Death Penalty. The five men and one woman took their seats on the second row, pulled pillows and blankets from their backpacks, and feigned sleep -- as Judge Jones, in a somewhat strained voice, pressed on with her speech.

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