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Bush-appointed judge rejects racist label


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Charles Pickering
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(CNN) -- Charles Pickering, the judge temporarily appointed by President Bush to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, denies allegations that he is racist, an accusation leveled against him by Democrats who stalled his nomination in the Senate.

"To accuse a white Southerner of being a racist is about the worst thing you can do," Pickering said Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes."

"I have worked for more than three decades trying to provide better relations between the races, trying to protect equal rights. That's my core being, and they've attacked that."

Bypassing the Senate confirmation process, Bush appointed Pickering, a former U.S. District Court judge, during the congressional recess in January. Pickering will serve in the post until January 2005.

The judge has said he then will seek congressional support so he can remain on the bench. The 5th Circuit court handles federal appeals from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

Democrats stalled Pickering's nomination by keeping Republicans from getting the votes needed to break a filibuster in the GOP-controlled Senate. The judge previously failed to receive confirmation when Democrats were in charge of the Senate.

Pickering's critics say he has a record of racism. His detractors are primarily upset because he reduced the sentence of a white man who -- along with two other men -- burned a cross 10 years ago on the lawn of a biracial couple.

Two of the men pleaded guilty and avoided jail time, but the third was convicted of a hate crime after refusing a plea bargain, and the government proposed a 7 1/2-year sentence. Pickering said he reduced the sentence to 2 1/2 years because the higher sentence was grossly disproportionate to the penalties for the other two men.

"I told him what he did was a heinous, reprehensible, despicable, dastardly act and that he was going to the penitentiary for it," said Pickering, adding that he empathized with the victims.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, criticized the more lenient sentence.

"What does that say about someone's racial sensitivity, especially in the 5th Circuit of Mississippi? Can't we do better?" Schumer asked.

But Pickering said he's fought against racism since the 1950s.

When he was a prosecutor, he said, he testified against Ku Klux Klansman Wizard Sam Bowers, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1998 for murdering a civil rights activist in 1966.

The judge also said he chose to send his children to an integrated public school and as a defense lawyer got an acquittal for a black man accused of robbing a white girl at knifepoint.

Pickering said he had three choices when he was elected county attorney in 1963: "I could either do as most Mississippians did and simply remain silent, I could be come a Klan sympathizer or I could challenge the Klan and take the Klan on." He said he decided to work with the FBI to fight Klansmen.

Attorney Charles Lawrence, a Democrat, is one of Pickering's supporters.

"I trust him because I've been in front of him. I've had cases in front of him," Lawrence said. "And that's not to say I've always won. I haven't always won. But he, he has an understanding of the law, and he applies it ... fairly across the board."


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