Judges Fret over 'Attack' on Independent Bench They Decry Threats to Remove New York Jurist

Article excerpt

AMERICA'S federal judiciary is circling the wagons in the face of unprecedented political attacks - including calls for the removal or impeachment of a New York federal trial judge for making an unpopular decision.

In an election year long on "get tough on crime" sentiments, including GOP presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan's support of term limits on judges, court decisions that appear to be soft on crime are under increasing attack by conservatives.

"It is a highly charged time," says David Sellars, spokesman for the Judicial Conference Secretariat in Washington, the association of federal judges. "As the only apolitical branch of government, judges are easy victims of political crossfire." Clinton judicial appointees and nominees in Florida, Maryland, and New York are under attack. In his stump speech, GOP presidential contender Bob Dole, for example, derides the White House for appointing "liberal judges." In turn, the administration has hinted that judges' rulings, and even their jobs, may be subject to politics - a stance that has caused the normally reserved judiciary to rally in the past week. Judges say the health of an independent federal judiciary, whose members are appointed for life, is at stake - including judges' ability to rule free from pressure. The Baer case in New York has left the American judiciary shaken. US trial judge Harold Baer Jr. had been singled out by Senator Dole and later by President Clinton for a ruling that excluded as evidence 80 pounds of cocaine seized by police in New York's Washington Heights district. This week, Judge Baer startled the legal community by reversing that ruling after hearing new evidence. The reversal, taking place in a national spotlight, embarrassed some in the judiciary because it could be viewed as a "cave in" caused by threats from 150 House Republicans, Dole, and Mr. Clinton about Baer's job. Privately, many scholars and judges say Baer's original illegal search-and-seizure ruling, which emphasized police negligence, was a mistake - though they say the reversal is brave. But it is the threat of job loss that bothers judges and legal experts. …