The scary judge story

scary storyAny news story that is reliant on statements from public interest groups is bound to have some problems. News stories involving the appointment of federal judges with lifetime tenure are often Exhibit A, along with nearly any other story involving a controversial person being considered for a lifetime job. The story in the Billings Gazette last week on the opposition to a federal judge candidate is no exception. Just check out the scare quotes in the first sentence:

WASHINGTON -- Several advocacy groups have mounted a campaign against the nomination of Richard Honaker to the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming, calling his views on religion and abortion "extreme."

What is the reporter trying to communicate by stating upfront this attorney's views on religion and abortion as extreme? Could it be that Honaker believes that the basis of American law is Christianity? Since that is arguably a factual statement, how exactly is that extreme? Perhaps it would be extreme if Honaker actually wanted to replace whole bodies of American law with something else, but Honaker won't have the power to do so as a federal district court judge.

The fact is that Honaker has done little legislatively that would suggest that he would try to somehow restore Christian principles in American law as a district court judge. Attempts to make changes in substantive law are likely to receive a quick remand from the federal court of appeals.

Charges that his views on abortion are extreme just don't hold up. And for that matter, the views of a federal district judge on abortion don't really matter. He might as well believe that the sky is pink. It won't make any difference.

As a state legislature, Honaker attempted to pass a law in 1991 that would have made abortions illegal except for in cases where a woman's health was in danger or in cases of incest or rape. If a reporter labels those views "extreme," then the reporter is misusing the word since more than a few Americans view that as a legitimate law.

The problem with the story is that it relies too heavily on the statements from groups that oppose the candidate. There is little on Honaker's actual career or on statements from him outside of the narrowly selected statements from the advocacy groups that oppose his nomination:

The letter quotes Honaker as telling a 2005 Homeschoolers of Wyoming Convention that "there is indeed a Christian basis for American institutions of law, government and business" and criticizing the Supreme Court because it "no longer talks about America as a Christian nation or about the Christian underpinnings of the law."

The letter says that those and other comments indicate Honaker "will not look to the United States Constitution and federal statutes to resolve cases but instead will look to his understanding of God's law. Moreover, his comments indicate that he would like to reshape American legal jurisprudence so that it can return to its 'Christian base.' "

Honaker has said he would decide every case fairly and impartially, based on the rule of law and the Constitution. Both of Wyoming's senators agree with that and support his nomination.

The story notes at the end that this potentially extremely scary judge received a unanimous opinion from the American Bar Association–that Honaker is "well qualified" and was president of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association and the Wyoming State Bar.

Hopefully the Billings Gazette will follow up on Honaker's nomination hearing Tuesday and give a more balanced report that is less slanted towards the views of the Honaker's opposition groups. For an interesting perspective, check out the Mother Jones quasi-endorsement of Honaker. As told by Ryan Grim of CBS News, the basic argument is that Honaker's "trial-lawyer background is more significant than his anti-abortion position."

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