Devil in the Details: Disorder in the Court

Article excerpt

DRAW, DOMESTIC PARDNER

Idaho Representative Helen Chenoweth has never been a fan of gun control. Nevertheless, her latest foray into the public debate over the issue seems a little bit odd. Chenoweth is the lead sponsor of a bill to repeal the Lautenberg amendment, a 1996 provision that effectively prohibits gun ownership by anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense. The amendment, she claims, violates the Second and Tenth Amendments, and is an ex post facto law (because it's retroactive) as well as an unfunded government mandate.

What's more, she says, police sometimes charge both parties in a domestic violence dispute, so the Lautenberg amendment might prevent abused women from defending themselves. According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, nearly four million women have been abused by their husbands or boyfriends over the past year, and 26 percent of all murdered women are killed by their partners. A mere 3 percent of murdered men, on the other hand, are killed by their wives or girlfriends. In the spirit of frontier justice, Rep. Chenoweth prefers to keep guns in the hands of abused wives rather than keeping them out of the hands of their abusive husbands. Why does this strike us as less than a fair fight?

DISORDER IN THE COURT

The past year has seen the revival of an old Republican proposal, the division of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. For the fifth time since 1983, northwestern Republicans have urged that the court, which serves nine western states, be divided in two, arguing that the court is too large and inefficient, and that a division is necessary for the effective administration of justice. Legislation dividing the court passed the Senate in July on a party-line vote, and the issue has been pushed to the top of the agenda.

But there's more to this story. While there may be good administrative reasons for splitting the Ninth Circuit - after all, it serves 50 million people (more than any of the nation's other circuit courts), has a caseload of more than 7,000, and takes an average of 429 days to reach a decision, compared to 315 days on average nationwide - the bid to split the Ninth Circuit comes in the midst of an all-out Republican assault on "judicial activism" in the federal courts. Conservative congressmen have held up the nominations of many Clinton judicial appointees, called for the impeachment of liberal judges like Thelton Henderson of California, and even proposed a rules change that would give senators a de facto veto over judicial nominees for their circuit.

Tellingly, the Ninth Circuit is probably the country's most liberal. Over the past few years, Ninth Circuit judges have ruled against laws banning assisted suicide, upheld the Brady law, thrown out numerous death sentences, and dealt several important blows to the timber industry. Thus when Republican senators argue that the Ninth is dominated by Californians who don't understand their constituents' needs, the reality is that they don't like a court dominated by liberals.

If Republicans were truly concerned about the Ninth Circuit being overburdened with cases, wouldn't they try harder to fill its vacancies? …