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Katherine Ernst
Barbara Boxer, Bully
The California senator twists herself into knots to oppose Bush nominees.
9 June 2005

Some things in the United States Senate seem so rote that they’re not worth much further analysis. Hillary Clinton will make (calculating) “moderate” maneuvers, John McCain will be feisty about something (campaign finance reform, steroids in baseball, Tom Cruise’s new faux relationship), and Barbara Boxer will launch some sort of fatwa on a Bush administration nominee up for confirmation.

Yet while it’s not exactly news that a Marin County Über-lib would oppose a conservative nominee, Boxer somehow manages to turn her partisan misgivings into the kind of spectacles that make the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times swoon. John Ashcroft knows the drill and so does Condoleezza Rice (indeed, Boxer’s attacks on Rice this year were so over-the-top that Saturday Night Live immortalized her in a sketch: “An eruption of lies! Dr. Condo-lies-a-lies-a-lot!”).

Add Janice Rogers Brown to the list of Boxer’s targets. The conservative African-American judge, confirmed to the D.C. Court of appeals yesterday, has had to endure the verbal wrath of the Smurf-sized senator over the past few weeks with nary an opportunity for an edgewise word (Boxer has a penchant for getting really riled up over black conservative nominees). Ironically, Boxer’s treatment of Brown is strikingly similar to what she chastised John Ashcroft for doing to another judge—the explanation for her enthusiastic “nay” vote during Ashcroft’s 2001 attorney general confirmation hearing.

Boxer’s anti-Brown diatribe on the Senate floor a few weeks ago carefully opened with a qualification: “Her life story is amazing. It is remarkable. What I don’t like is what she is doing to other people’s lives. Her story is amazing, but for whatever reason, she is hurting the people of this country, particularly . . . in my state.” Of course, no self-respecting California liberal would want to seem hostile to an Alabama-born sharecropper’s daughter—one who rose from segregated poverty to the top of her law class and then on to the Golden State’s Supreme Court.

But hostile Boxer ultimately was. No less than 12 times during her long spiel, she talked about the “mainstream” and how Brown was waaaayyy outside of it. (NARAL-darling Boxer should know a thing or two about that!) The senator—a member of the party of “nuance”—avoided legal details as she ripped into Brown, focusing solely on case outcomes in order to make the judge sound as nutty as possible: “Here is another case where she voted alone, the only member of the court to oppose an effort to stop the sale of cigarettes to children. It was a case where the supermarkets didn’t want to be responsible . . . she ruled against an effort to stop the sale of cigarettes to children.” Child Abuser! Big Tobacco Toady! “Janice Rogers Brown said a manager could use racial slurs against his Latino employees[.]” Racist! “This is a woman who not only voted with a rapist against a 17-year-old girl, she was the only member of the court who voted to strike down a state antidiscrimination law that provided a contraceptive drug benefits to women.” Rapist-sympathizer! Misogynist!

Boxer buttressed her attack with claims that the judge was a frequent lone dissenter: “She stood alone . . . she went against five Republicans and one Democrat 31 times[.]” Yet, as the California Committee for Justice calculated, Brown ranked fourth in sole dissents out of eight of the state’s nine Supreme Court justices the group surveyed (and the time span for her dissents is nearly 10 years). If Boxer’s attack wasn’t an outright smear, it came close.

The Barbara Boxer of four years ago, you’d like to think, would find today’s Barbara Boxer appalling. After all, back then, the senator based her objection to John Ashcroft’s attorney general nomination almost solely on his “treatment” of a black judge up for senatorial confirmation (Ashcroft vehemently opposed the judge on grounds he was “pro-criminal” and that he once called for a retrial for a serial murderer). Ding-ding goes the Hypocrisy Bell. “Was John Ashcroft’s treatment of Judge Ronnie White fair? Did he have a good heart when it came to dealing with [him]?” opined Boxer as she intoned how distraught Ashcroft’s opposition made her and her buddy, Congresswoman Maxine Waters. “I will never forget the day this Senate voted down Judge Ronnie White on a straight partisan vote—the first time in 50 long years that a judge nominee who had been passed favorably through the Judiciary Committee was so treated.” (Cough! Cough! Ahem! Ahem!) She then echoed liberal senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and asked President Bush, “Why don’t you re-nominate Ronnie White in the spirit of reconciliation?” The floor speech was classic Boxer: short on details and long on empty statements and tales of hurt feelings: “how could someone with a good heart do that to another person? I do not understand it.”

In fact, Ashcroft’s opposition to Ronnie White was substantive, drawing on detailed examination of the judge’s cases, which offered strong evidence for doubting his ability to make sound judicial decisions. For example, consider the judge’s groan-inducing dissent in Missouri v. Kinder, a murder and rape case where the lead-pipe wielding defendant had left DNA at the crime scene. White said the defendant’s trial was racially contaminated because its judge had previously issued a press release critical of affirmative action—which White interpreted as “race-baiting nonsense”—and did not recuse himself from the case. So if you’re opposed to affirmative action, you’re incapable of adjudicating cases involving minorities?

Boxer offered no comparable analysis of Brown’s work, but—just this week on the Senate floor—did name over 100 hyper-partisan groups that opposed her nomination—an anti-Brown Hail Mary. Droned Boxer: “Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project; Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights for the Bay Area; NARAL Pro-Choice California; . . . ” Even so, Brown survived.

Perhaps we can’t expect the 64-year-old senator to change, but it would be nice if media outlets like the New York Times stopped referring to her knee-jerk liberal attacks as “vivid illustration[s] of aggressive posture.” Babs, next time, vote to confirm one of our guys. In the spirit of reconciliation, of course.

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More by Katherine Ernst:
You Say You Want a Revolution
The Audacity of Humility
Was Reagan a Liberal?
More . . .
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