WASHINGTON – House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, stepped up his attack on federal judges Thursday, telling a gathering of religious conservatives that the judiciary has “run amok” and demanding that Congress assert authority over the courts.
His remarks, delivered by videotape, broadened the criticism he voiced last week after the death of Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged woman in Florida, after judges refused to order her feeding tube reinserted.
DeLay’s address came as he strives to shore up his base amid a storm over his ethics. Liberal groups have launched ads attacking his connections to lobbyists and former associates now under investigation. Prominent news reports have raised questions about his use of campaign cash, and last year the House ethics committee rebuked him three times in one week.
Many lawmakers think DeLay can weather the storm as long as he’s perceived as a leader of the conservative movement.
“The judiciary branch of our government has overstepped its authority on countless occasions, overturning and in some cases just ignoring the legitimate will of the people,” DeLay said. “But I also believe the executive and legislative branches have neglected the proper checks and balances on this behavior … Our next step, whatever it is, must be more than rhetoric.”
Criticism of the courts by religious conservatives has mounted since the Schiavo case. At issue is extraordinary legislation that Congress passed and President Bush signed late last month that ordered federal courts to review the case, in which Schiavo’s husband and parents disputed what her wishes would be. A federal judge in Florida refused to overturn a state court’s decision and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
After Schiavo died last week, DeLay said federal judges “thumbed their nose at Congress and the president. The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.”
Congress could inject itself into the judiciary by simply calling on judges to testify before Congress, a move that could be interpreted as intimidation. It also could intervene more dramatically, by initiating impeachment procedures, passing legislation limiting judges’ terms in office or redefining the jurisdiction of federal courts in certain types of cases.
Intervention by the Congress, however, does not sit well with some conservatives.
John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican congressional aide, said: “A lot of conservatives may strongly disapprove of what the courts are doing but don’t think it’s proper to punish judges for the decisions. They regard that as a breach of separation of powers.”
Even Congress’ attempt to influence the Schiavo case prompted a strong rebuke by one of the judges deciding the matter. Circuit Judge Stanley F. Birch Jr., appointed to the court by President Bush’s father, said, “Congress chose to overstep constitutional boundaries into the province of the judiciary. Such an act cannot be countenanced.”
Republican lawmakers too are splintered over whether to take on the judicial branch of government. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., distanced himself from DeLay, saying he thought the judges in the Schiavo case had given her case a “fair and independent look.”
“I believe we have a fair and independent judiciary today,” Frist added.
DeLay had been scheduled as the keynote speaker before the Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration, but sent in taped remarks because the conference conflicted with his trip to Rome for Pope John Paul II’s funeral.
“Our judiciary has banned prayer in schools and evicted Christmas displays from town halls,” DeLay said.
He complained that judges were ignoring legislatures and “following the dictates of foreign opinion,” a reference to a recent Supreme Court decision on the death penalty.
“These are not the examples of a mature society, but of a judiciary run amok,” DeLay said.