Wolves in Robes
By Hal Crowther
Vol. 6, No. 5, 1984, pp. 3-4
To people outside North Carolina, it may sound like a parochial, partisan quarrel between courtroom personalities who rub each other the wrong way. But the decision by Judge James H. Pou Bailey of Wake County Superior Court to publicly oppose the nomination of Samuel T. Currin for a federal judgeship is one of the state’s most significant political stories, and one that deserves national attention.
Bailey, the Superior Court’s senior resident judge, is a conservative Democrat and a personal friend of Sen. Jesse Helms, who recommended Currin for the nomination. It isn’t his habit or his style to become involved in political controversies. His decision was obviously a matter of personal conscience, and it was crucial because he’s one of the few public officials in Eastern North Carolina whose personal reputation and lack of further political ambition make him immune to the kind of tactics the Currin crowd seems to employ against its enemies. His statement was neither mild nor diplomatic.
“I personally believe Sam Currin would use any method for any purpose he thought was right,” Bailey said. “I can conceive of no more dangerous person than a fanatic with power. If he is appointed a judge, that’s what we would have.”
This is, on a small scale, the same kind of “enough is enough” that secure, older conservatives were finally forced to declare to call a halt to the reckless rise of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. They ,were the only ones who could. McCarthy’s critics on the left and even in the center had been neutralized by fear and public ignorance.
Currin, age thirty-five, a former aide to Sen. Helms, is a right-wing zealot who has been clawing his way to power in the office of US Attorney for North Carolina’s Eastern District. The Colcor investigation, of which Currin was partial architect, was the code name for a much-publicized probe of official corruption in Columbus County, North Carolina. There were impressive indictments, but no major convictions after it became apparent that most of the federal cases were based on the agent-invented crimes that are currently so fashionable in law enforcement circles. When it became more than a rumor that assistant US attorneys had tried to sucker several of the defendants’ lawyers into embarrassing situations, Colcor was generally discredited.
Colcor finally soured with both judges and juries, but not before it ended the careers (perhaps mercifully) of a lieutenant governor and a state senator, among others. More damning evidence against young Currin is the current testimony by one of his former assistants that he lied under oath to justify the firing of an employee, Nancy Jones. Worse yet, the sexual insinuation of the story that he apparently concocted shows a brutal kind of disregard for her career and reputation.
There are those who feel that a forced resignation and even disbarment would be a more fitting reward for Samuel T. Currin than the federal bench. But more important than Currin’s personal shortcomings, which seem to be legion, is the symbolic split between conservatives like Judge Bailey and conservatives like Currin. I suggest that even Sen. Helms is unaware of the alarming emptiness of some of these fierce young men that he sees as his political heirs.
A conservative is profoundly distrustful of major changes in the way people speak, dress, build their houses, arrange their families, use their land, direct their energies and have sex with each other. I’m afflicted with this distrust as much as anyone I know, and I’m sure I share it with Sen. Helms. It’s a mixture of secure values and sick nostalgia. The Senator’s wisdom, like his ignorance, is a product of his own time, a time that is, in a sense, time past. The test of
character for a conservative, which I feel the Senator fails, is whether he can exert his influence without attempting to condemn or coerce the people who don’t share his background and can’t share his views.
Conservatism with or without character is proper to people approaching middle life, at the, earliest. There’s something unnatural about a youthful reactionary. He isn’t trying to preserve anything, in a responsible way, because he hasn’t been around long enough to examine things properly, to determine what’s worth preserving. He’s merely giving up that time in his life when he might have the energy and idealism to make some improvements. Young conservative movements attract gullible, spiritless kids, joiners and conformists. And, unfortunately, fanatics. Young men and women who love to accept and impose authority, capable of passionate commitment of obsolete and oversimplified ideologies. It’s not surprising that Currin and some of the Congressional Club’s other iron babies are referred to in private as “the Hitler Youth.” And it’s natural, in a political movement that attracts a lot of sheep, that wolves rise rapidly.
As Judge Bailey pointed out, there could be nothing much worse than making judges of them, even at the traffic-court level. Inevitably many of our cases would be decided not on their legal merits but on what we seemed to represent to the judge–whether he sees you as one of his own or one of the others. In matters of pure law, of precedent and constitutionality, it would be impossible to exaggerate the destructive potential of men who had been such unscrupulous prosecutors, let alone their ideology.
This case is North Carolina’s, but it epitomizes a national crisis. Never in fifty years, not since the first election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, has the power of the federal courts been open to such harsh and narrow-minded men. To me the most critical issue in the 1984 presidential election is the advanced age of the current Supreme Court, and the likelihood that Ronald Reagan, reelected, will appoint (on the reccommendations of key advisors like Jesse Helms) four or five new justices in his second term. They’ll be relatively young justices, and it means that our children and even our grandchildren will grow up in a country far more repressive and intolerant, more cramped and rigid and uncharitable, than the one we grew up in. With Ed Meese as Attorney General, Sam Currin on the federal bench and his slightly older counterparts on the Supreme Court, there’s going to be very lisle in this country that we oldtimers are going to recognize as justice.
(Currin’s nomination, along with those of other controversial judicial candidates, has been put on ice to be revived after the November election.)
But I understand that seventy-five percent of the electorate isn’t interested in that issue. They aren’t interested in the environment or in the world population explosion, which our government is currently addressing with the most shortsighted and reactionary policy any American government has presented on any crucial issue in the twentieth century. They aren’t interested in what happens to old people, minorities, unprotected women, disabled veterans or any groups they don’t belong to. They aren’t seriously worried about the arms race or about a President (what an intergalactic fathead he really is, that senile soap salesman we send around the world on Air Force One) who drives the Russians crazy by making jokes about blowing them to pieces. The voters aren’t especially offended by an administration that is creating a republic of, by and for affluent white men.
All they’re interested in, according to the polls, is the economy. Like pigs at the trough, they signal their preference turning their snouts toward whichever candidate seems to have the most swill in his bucket. And snout voting, as I call it, is most predictable among the fattest pigs. Gluttony fires a hunger that starvation can’t touch.
Snout voters are going to look up from the trough some day and find their lives in the hands of men who make Samuel T. Currin look like a shy legal scholar. Men whose idea of criminal justice is to pick out types that look suspicious and tempt them and hound them until they commit crimes. Men who would take you, your pregnant 14-year-old daughter and the doctor who has the reckless courage to give her an abortion and put all three of you behind bars. They’ve as much as promised. You may or may not have a full belly, but that’s going to be expensive swill.
Hal Crowther, principal columnist for Spectator Magazine in Raleigh, North Carolina, formerly covered law and education for Time, and media for Newsweek. More recently a film and television scriptwriter, he lives in Pittsboro (NC) and teaches courses at Duke University.