President Bush has a chance to send a reassuring message to the growing number of people who doubt his serious commitment to racial justice. He can summarily drop U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp from any further consideration for appointment to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Ryskamp, 57, appears to be the leading contender to be nominated for a seat on the Atlanta appeals court, which hears federal cases from Florida, Georgia and Alabama. But his record on civil rights is atrocious. One legal affairs publication, the Miami Review, called the Miami judge one who "has gone out of his way to see that plaintiffs do not prevail in age, gender and race complaints."
Ryskamp has ruled against such plaintiffs in almost 90 percent of the civil rights cases he has decided since President Reagan appointed him to the federal bench in 1986, the Review found. And he has managed to do so while exhibiting an insensitivity sometimes bordering on the Neanderthal.
In one case, he reversed a jury decision in a discrimination complaint filed by several black males whom West Palm Beach police allowed to be attacked by vicious police dogs. "It might not be inappropriate to carry around a few scars to remind you of your wrongdoing in the past .
." Ryskamp said, even though one of the plaintiffs, a 15-year-old boy whose testicles had been mangled by the dogs, was never charged with a crime and had a clean record.
"The judge's comment, his lack of sensitivity shocked me," the boy's lawyer told the Review.
Another time, Ryskamp seemed actually to argue the defense's case, citing evidence it hadn't even raised, in rejecting the age-discrimination complaint of a 65-year-old bus driver, even while acknowledging that the man had been dismissed from his job illegally. At least three times the same 11th Circuit that he aspires to went so far as to publish opinions scolding Ryskamp for unfairness to civil rights plaintiffs.
Ryskamp's front-runner status is a bit of a puzzle, since he basically advanced his own candidacy. His name wasn't among the three candidates submitted by U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla. Traditionally, the senior home-state senator from the president's party is given considerable sway in nominating applicants for federal judgeships. Mack wisely has set up a 21-member commission to screen potential judgeship nominees, and in this instance followed the commission's recommendations.
Perhaps this nomination is being sold to Mr. Bush as a chance to shore up relations with the right wing of his party. Or perhaps he's still listening to the same people who engineered the racist Willie Horton campaign strategy and the see-no-evil William Lucas nomination to head the Justice Department's civil rights division.
In his State of the Union address the president urged Americans to confront their own bigotry, something that sorely needed stating from the bully pulpit. But anyone who thinks such homilies will suffice against the ugly realities of discrimination is just whistling past the graveyard.
Civil rights advances were hard-won, and any attempt at putting more hostile judges on the federal courts is likely to meet stiff resistance. A confrontation is already shaping up over the Civil Rights Act of 1990, a bill designed to restore some of the safeguards against employment bias lost in a series of Supreme Court decisions last year. And while many civil rights watchdogs, including women's rights and gay rights groups, haven't taken a stand on Ryskamp yet, they are taking a close look at his record.
If reports about that record are anywhere near accurate, Mr. Bush could be risking another Bork-like collision when the nomination goes to the Senate for consideration. Is it worth it? It's arguable that this man shouldn't even be on the bench, let alone sitting on a court that reviews the decisions of other judges.