Evangelical Christian leaders, who have been working closely with senior Republican lawmakers to place conservative judges in the federal courts, have also been exploring ways to punish sitting jurists and even entire courts viewed as hostile to their cause.
An audio recording obtained by the Los Angeles Times features two of the nation’s most influential evangelical leaders, at a private conference with supporters, laying out strategies to rein in judges, such as stripping funding from their courts in an effort to hinder their work.
The discussion took place during a Washington conference last month that included addresses by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who discussed efforts to bring a more conservative cast to the courts.
Frist and DeLay have not publicly endorsed the evangelical groups’ proposed actions. But the taped discussion among evangelical leaders provides a glimpse of the road map they are drafting as they work with congressional Republicans to achieve a judiciary that sides with them on abortion, same-sex marriage and other elements of their agenda.
“There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to take a black robe off the bench,” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, according to an audiotape of a March 17 session. The tape was provided to The Times by the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
DeLay has spoken generally about one of the ideas the leaders discussed in greater detail: using legislative tactics to withhold money from courts.
“We set up the courts. We can unset the courts. We have the power of the purse,” DeLay said at an April 13 question-and-answer session with reporters.
The leaders present at the March conference, including Perkins and James C. Dobson, founder of the influential group Focus on the Family, have been working with Frist to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominations, a legislative tool that has allowed Senate Democrats to stall 10 of President Bush’s nominations. Frist is scheduled to appear, via a taped statement, during a satellite broadcast to churches nationwide Sunday that the Family Research Council has organized to build support for the Bush nominees.
The March conference featuring Dobson and Perkins showed that the evangelical leaders, in addition to working to place conservative nominees on the bench, have been trying to find ways to remove certain judges.
Perkins said that he had attended a meeting with congressional leaders a week earlier where the strategy of stripping funding from certain courts was “prominently” discussed. “What they’re thinking of is not only the fact of just making these courts go away and re-creating them the next day but also defunding them,” Perkins said.
He said that instead of undertaking the long process of trying to impeach judges, Congress could use its appropriations authority to “just take away the bench, all of his staff, and he’s just sitting out there with nothing to do.”
These curbs on courts are “on the radar screen, especially of conservatives here in Congress,” he said.
Dobson, who emerged last year as one of the evangelical movement’s most important political leaders, named one potential target: the California-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Very few people know this, that the Congress can simply disenfranchise a court,” Dobson said. “They don’t have to fire anybody or impeach them or go through that battle. All they have to do is say the 9th Circuit doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s gone.”
Robert Stevenson, a spokesman for Frist, said Thursday that the Senate leader does not agree with the idea of defunding courts or shutting them down, pointing to Frist’s comments earlier this month embracing a “fair and independent judiciary.” A spokesman for DeLay declined to comment.
The remarks by Perkins and Dobson drew fire from Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who charged that the two leaders were more brazen in such private encounters with supporters than their more genteel public images portray.
“To talk about defunding judges is just about the most bizarre, radical approach to controlling the outcome of court decisions that you can imagine,” Lynn said.
Frist is expected to try as early as next week to push the Senate to ban filibusters on judicial nominations -- a move so explosive that Democrats are calling it the “nuclear option.”
Democrats have been using the filibuster to block 10 of Bush’s appeals court nominees who they believe are too extreme in their views, but the skirmishes are considered a preview of a highly anticipated fight over replacing the ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, whose retirement is considered imminent.
“Folks, I am telling you all that it is going to be the mother of all battles,” Dobson predicted at the March 17 meeting. “And it’s right around the corner. I mean, Justice Rehnquist could resign at any time, and the other side is mobilized to the teeth.”
The remarks by Perkins and Dobson reflect the passion felt by Christians who helped fuel Bush’s reelection last year with massive turnout in battleground states, and who also spurred Republican gains in the Senate and House.
Claiming a role by the movement in the GOP gains, Dobson concluded: “We’ve got a right to hold them accountable for what happens here.”
Both leaders chastised what Perkins termed “squishy” and “weak” Republican senators who have not wholeheartedly endorsed ending Democrats’ power to filibuster judicial nominees. They said these included moderates such as Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. They also grumbled that Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and George Allen of Virginia needed prodding.
“We need to shake these guys up,” Perkins said.
Said Dobson: “Sometimes it’s just amazing to me that they seem to forget how they got here.”
Even Bush was not spared criticism. Dobson and Perkins encouraged their supporters to demand that the president act as aggressively on the judiciary as he has for his Social Security overhaul.
“These are not Bill Frist’s nominees; these are President George W. Bush’s nominees,” Perkins said. “He needs to be out there putting pressure on these senators who are weak on this issue and standing in obstruction to these nominations,” he said.
Dobson chided Frist, a likely 2008 presidential contender, for not acting sooner on the filibuster issue, urging “conservatives all over the country” to tell Frist “that he needs to get on with it.”
Dobson also said Republicans risked inflicting long-term damage on their party if they failed to seize the moment -- a time when Bush still has the momentum of his reelection victory -- to transform the courts. He said they had just 18 months to act before Bush becomes a “lame-duck president.”
“If we let that 18 months get away from us and then maybe we got Hillary to deal with or who knows what, we absolutely will not recover from that,” he said.
Perkins and Dobson laid out a history of court rulings they found offensive, singling out the recent finding by the Supreme Court that executing minors was unconstitutional. They criticized Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion, noting that the Republican appointee had cited the laws of foreign nations that, Dobson said, applied the same standard as “the most liberal countries in Europe.”
“What about Latin America, South America, Central America? What about China? What about Africa?” Dobson asked. “They pick and choose the international law that they want and then apply it here as though we’re somehow accountable to Europe. I resent that greatly.”
DeLay has also criticized Kennedy for citing foreign laws in that opinion, calling the practice “outrageous.”
As part of the discussion, Perkins and Dobson referred to remarks by Dobson earlier this year at a congressional dinner in which he singled out the use by one group of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants in a video that Dobson said promoted a homosexual agenda.
Dobson was ridiculed for his comments, which some critics interpreted to mean the evangelist had determined that the cartoon character was gay.
Dobson said the beating he took in the media, coming after his appearance on the cover of newsmagazines hailing his prominence in Bush’s reelection, proved that the press will only seek to tear him down.
“This will not be the last thing that you read about that makes me look ridiculous,” he said.