Judgeships Still Obsess Anti-Gay Extremists in New Congress

by Hans Johnson
President, Progressive Victory
Contributing Editor, In These Times

Watching Rev. Ted Haggard emerge from month-long intensive counseling to proclaim himself cured of "same-sex attraction disorder" is a spectacle with political overtones. His experience could have been a clanging wakeup call to evangelicals to the prevalence, unfair repression, and intrinsic humanity of gay people in their families and congregational flocks. Instead, he is another casualty, and complicit agent, in the demonization of gay people by right-wing mullahs that continues to carry over into the electoral and legislative arenas, even in the new Congress.

Democratic moderates may now hold a narrow Senate majority. Conservative judges, including hundreds appointed by W, already dominate the 840-seat federal bench. But these facts don't stop the far-right from portraying the bench as a liberal bastion or the power of appointment as their prerogative.

Bush and Rove may have lost the '06 elections. Media and mailing-list ayatollahs Jim Dobson and Pat Robertson may have taken it on the chin, too. But their shared strategy of ginning up followers' interest in politics by campaigning for far-right adherents to get lifetime federal judgeships is alive and well. This gameplan will carry their partisan partnership through 2007. It will remain their method for testing the lockstep loyalty of the '08 GOP presidential hopefuls. It's how their anointed one will woo the evangelical base in the general election.

Dobson's Focus on the Family (FOF) is already preparing for the next Supreme Court vacancy, all but praying in its March magazine that "ill health" by John Paul Stevens might force the veteran justice from the bench. Despite the smooth placement of far-right nominees onto the bench in the Bush years, including antigay antagonist Bill Pryor and author of the infamous Bush torture memo Jay Bybee, Dobson's group decries their "lynching" before the Senate.

The distortions of the courts, their composition, and the confirmation process bear a keen resemblance to far-right depictions of gay people. Far-right groups like Focus on the Family allege that liberals, like gay people, are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Any expression of kinship--much less identification with the despised other, as in the case of Haggard--requires confession and cleansing. Instead of being a respected minority, deserving recognition and representation in each branch of government, gay people, according to so much evangelical sermonizing, are a scourge. Any association by the righteous with the hated taint deserves scorn and repudiation.

So it was with Bush judicial nominee Janet Neff, up for a federal district judgeship in Michigan in 2006. But Sen. Sam Brownback, a GOP presidential candidate, put a hold on her appointment after learning she had merely attended a same-sex commitment ceremony in Massachusetts, for the daughter of a longtime neighbor. Only in the wake of the election and stern criticism from conservative scholars did Brownback reluctantly remove his legislative hex.

And so it is with legislation. Most Americans believe that discrimination against gay people in private employment or housing is so misguided, so morally wrong, that it must be against federal law. It's not. That's because the simple statute to fill the gap in the nation's anti-bias law has languished for more than 30 years. Opposition from far-right Republicans in Congress is the chief reason.

Were even the most modest measure including gay people under nondiscrimination protections to pass Congress and gain the next president's signature, far-right legal activists would tie it up in court before implementation. There it would face scrutiny, likely from at least one judge, if not entire appellate panels, made up of appointees with track records critical of gay people's claims to equality.

The upshot? Arch-conservatives see the courts as their best chance to grab a branch of government. While the public strongly endorses measures of nondiscrimination for gay people and recognition of committed same-sex couples, far-right leaders seek to place as many foes of basic fairness as they can onto the courts. Even as they lose a rubber stamp in Congress and feel the presidency slipping away, they are reinforcing the ranks of judges who will ratify their hostility for years to come.