Senator Cornyn Links Violence, Judges’ ‘Political Decisions’

Senator links violence, judges’ ‘political decisions’ (Houston Chronicle)

In an eyebrow-raising speech on the Senate floor Monday, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn suggested a connection between “political decisions” by some judges and incidents of courthouse violence across the nation. The remarks by Republican Cornyn, a former justice on the Texas Supreme Court, prompted immediate criticism from Democrats.

Cornyn, citing recent cases of violence against judges, said he wondered “whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters on some occasions where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people … engage in violence.” The violence is unjustified, Cornyn said, but is “a concern that I have that I wanted to share.”

Cornyn, who also served as a district judge in San Antonio, delivered a blistering critique of the U.S. Supreme Court. The court has taken on the role of “policymaker” rather than enforcer of laws and had “generated a lack of respect for judges generally,” he said.

Senator Links Violence to ‘Political’ Decisions
(WaPo, A7)

Sen. John Cornyn said yesterday that recent examples of courthouse violence may be linked to public anger over judges who make politically charged decisions without being held accountable. In a Senate floor speech in which he sharply criticized a recent Supreme Court ruling on the death penalty, Cornyn (R-Tex.) — a former Texas Supreme Court justice and member of the Judiciary Committee — said Americans are growing increasingly frustrated by what he describes as activist jurists. “It causes a lot of people, including me, great distress to see judges use the authority that they have been given to make raw political or ideological decisions,” he said. Sometimes, he said, “the Supreme Court has taken on this role as a policymaker rather than an enforcer of political decisions made by elected representatives of the people.”

Cornyn continued: “I don’t know if there is a cause-and-effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country. . . . And I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters, on some occasions, where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in, engage in violence. Certainly without any justification, but a concern that I have.”


In a recent New York Times article, John Kane, a senior judge in the U.S. District Court for Colorado, wrote: “Since 1970, 10 state and federal judges have been murdered, seven of them in job-related incidents. Those who threaten judges are almost always disturbed individuals seeking revenge. . . . Of the three federal judges killed in the last quarter-century, all were killed by men disgruntled with their treatment from the federal judicial system.”

One would think this axiomatic rather than controversial. Violence is often an expression of frustration. That the controversial decisions might engender violence is hardly surprising.

via Taegan Goddard

Update: Jon Henke concurs.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MNObserver says:

    “Violence is often an expression of frustration. That the controversial decisions might engender violence is hardly surprising.”

    You said the same thing on September 12, 2001, didn’t you? No, that was… um… Give me a minute, it’ll come to me….

  2. JakeV says:

    First, Cornyn was not actually saying that controversial decisions might theoretically engender violence, but was instead suggesting that activist judging is somehow to blame for violence that has already occured.

    Second, Cornyn didn’t say “controversial decisions” might lead to violence. He said that the perception of the courts as unaccountable to the public might lead to violence. And he did so while attacking this alleged judicial unaccountability– while suggesting that this perception is in fact accurate.

    So third, the context of the utterace and the identity of its speaker are relevant. “The perception of activist judging may lead to violence against judges” sounds a little different when it is spoken by a person who is a strident and frequent critic of activist judging and is spoken as part of a critique of activist judging.

    This is why his remarks have rightly caused controversy.

  3. James Joyner says:

    MNObserver: I wasn’t blogging on 9/11. But, sure, it’s not a matter of dispute as to whether some terrorists are motivated by frustration over the fact that the world isn’t moving in the direction they want. What of it?

    JakeV: But is what he’s saying untrue? Are judges perceived as unaccountable by some? Couldn’t that perception lead to frustration? Couldn’t that frustration lead to violence?

  4. kappiy says:

    This guy Cronyn doesn’t seem to have a basic understanding of the cases at hand. If he is somehow linking violence against the judiciary with the tendency of judges to “use the authority that they have been given to make raw political or ideological decisions,” he exhibits no capacity for logic.

    In fact, the recent cases show exactly the opposite. In the Lefkow family case, Bert Ross was upset at Lefkow because SHE WAS NOT “ACTIVIST” ENOUGH. He was displeased with her rulings in favor of a hospital he sued for malpractice.

  5. JakeV says:

    James– if Cornyn were a sociologist, instead of an anti-activist judging Senator, you might have a point– although the comment would still be inane, since it’s ridiculous to suggest that the killing of Judge Lefkow or the Nichols shootings had anything to do with “judicial activism.”

    But like I said, context and speaker are important. The comments came in the midst of an attack on activist judging. At the same time Cornyn said that this “perception” of judicial unaccountablility is leading to violence, he also said that it is an accurate perception, and that something must be done about judicial unaccountability. That context is significant.

    On another board, someone posted a good analogue– if, after the murder of a policeman, a politician were to make a speech suggesting that this violence against the police flowed from an accurate perception that that the police are unjust and tyrannical, I suspect that the speech would generate some controversy, even though it may well be “axiomatic” that perceived injustice and tyranny can lead to violence.

    Or take another example– it’s one thing to suggest that frustration over perceived American injustice may have helped cause 9/11. It would be another to use 9/11 to argue that Americans should be less unjust– to make a speech attacking American injustice, and then say “and on 9/11, the world saw the results of the frustration American injustice causes.” What Cornyn said was much closer to the second.

  6. JakeV says:

    (A correction– I mean the killing of Judge Lefkow’s family. I assume that those murders and the Nichols murders are what Cornyn is referring to.)

  7. Anderson says:

    Appropriating other people’s tragedies for one’s own ideological obsessions is what politicians do, I guess, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

    John Cornyn: ghoul.

  8. wavemaker says:

    In light of the timing of his comments, one might guess than Sen. Cornyn was referring at least in part to the appellate decisions refusing to come to Terri Schiavo’s parents’ aid. If he had that in mind in the least, his comment has no credibility with me. The District Court, the 11th Circuit and the SCOTUS showed admirable restraint, and not an ounce of activism, in their Schiavo roles.

    I sympathize with the point generally, but the timing is a rather unfortunate.

  9. Hal says:

    Wow. None of the recent killings of judges were, in fact, motivated by a dislike of activist judges imposing ideological biases. In two cases, you had criminal suspects shooting the judge presiding over their trial, and in the case of Joan Lefkow’s family, a disgruntled individual whom she had ruled against in a malpractice case killed her family.

    Cornyn just made sh*t up! And now you’re following suit.

    Pretty cool, James.

  10. Carl Hinkle says:

    There are liberals and Democrats outside the Beltway too….

    A preponderance of the judges on our federal bench are now Republican and Republican appointees………….let them do their job of enforcing federal law and handling constitutional issues….. in our system it is not the job of 51% Republicans to put on BROWN SHIRTS and place their thumbs on the scales of justice……….
    preventing violence is what law and police are for…to give ANY APPROVAL OR COUNTENANCE to violence is to make our system not DEMOCRATIC, NOT REPUBLICAN BUT FASCIST…… cornyn is suggesting a wink wink nudge nudge toleration of violnece as long as it is RIGHT WING VIOLENCE…what is more like fascism????

  11. Patrick says:

    There is no such thing as “perception” of lack of accountability of judges. It is a fact. It is called judicial immunity. There is no law in any state or federal statute that grants a judge immunity from suit for his or her actions on the bench. However, there is a legal jurisprudence standard that grants “judicial immunity” to judges. They are immune from civil suit except for very limited circumstances. Judicial immunity is law made by judges for judges to grant judges a complete and total lack of accountability. The supreme court of the U.S. has held that even if the actions of a judge are “malicious and intentional” if they are done in the course of his duties he (or she) is immune form civil suit.

    Oh, by the way, try to get a district, state or federal attorney to press charges against a judge.

    Been there, done that, spent time in jail and still have to go to trial for putting in writing (in a child custody case as a pro se) the same thing that DeLay said.

    Our judicial system is broken.