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The right makes war on the courts

It gets little public attention, but it is as important as any political effort in this country today: the campaign by the far right to block President Clinton's appointments to the federal courts.

The principal instrument of the campaign is an organization called the Judicial Selection Monitoring Project, set up by the veteran ultra-conservative Paul Weyrich and run by Thomas Jipping. It is now circulating a videotape to potential donors to raise $1.4-million. A close look at the tape tells us much about the character of the campaign.

The tape says repeatedly that Clinton appoints "liberal activist judges." "Many of them will be rewriting the Constitution long after the Clinton presidency is history," Weyrich says. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese puts it: "Clinton's judges could eat away at the constitutional system for years to come."

As its main example of a wrongheaded judicial decision, the videotape describes a case in which federal District Judge Stewart Dalzell of Pennsylvania ordered the release of a young woman serving a life sentence for murder, Lisa Michelle Lambert. The murder victim was a high school student, Laurie Show, and the film shows emotional scenes of her parents.

Dalzell was in fact appointed by President Bush, not Clinton. What the tape says about the case is equally misleading.

Dalzell held a detailed hearing on a habeas corpus petition for Lambert's release. In his published opinion, Dalzell found that the prosecution had knowingly used false testimony by a man the judge called a murderer, Lawrence Yunkin, who had been allowed to plead guilty to a minor offense.

The victim's mother attended the habeas hearing. She voluntarily took the stand herself to say that she had seen Yunkin driving from the scene of the crime but that a detective told her not to "dwell on that." The judge praised her as "courageous and honest."

Much other evidence pointed to Lambert's innocence. Reading what actually happened in that case, I think any American _ whatever his or her politics _ would be proud of the way our legal system finally worked. Dalzell undid a gross miscarriage of justice.

The videotape is designed to alarm conservatives into giving money. "Bill Clinton's first term saw a dramatic shift from constitutional law to political activism," a voice says. An accompanying letter from Robert Bork, the failed Reagan nominee to the Supreme Court, says, "The constitutional crisis caused by President Clinton's activist liberal appointees to the federal judiciary is worsening daily."

Numerous professional studies have in fact found Clinton judicial nominees to be, overwhelmingly, centrist lawyers and judges. There has been nothing like the Reagan administration's highly focused ideological effort to choose conservatives.

Then what is the Judicial Selection Monitoring Project up to? Why is it trying to frighten conservatives with talk of non-existent "liberal activist" Clinton judges?

The aim is evidently to prevent Senate confirmation of as many Clinton nominees as possible _ leaving vacancies to be filled by the next president, who the right hopes will be a conservative Republican.

Jipping focuses his work intently on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Three ultraconservatives on the committee _ Sens. John Ashcroft of Missouri, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Jeff Sessions of Alabama _ have played a significant part in delaying action on Clinton nominees.

The chairman of the committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, resents charges that it has unfairly blocked action on judicial nominees. He points out that Clinton has left many vacancies unfilled for extended periods, and he has scheduled many confirmation hearings in the coming weeks.

But it is also true that the Judiciary Committee has failed to act on some nominees for a long time. Judicial nominations have been pending there for as long as two years without action.

I do not believe that Hatch will in the end willingly give way to right-wing pressure to keep judicial seats vacant. But the pressure is there, and it takes its toll: not just in senatorial delays but in the demonization of our courts, the institution that more than any other has kept this country free.

New York Times News Service