Pickering, Scalia and the unicorns of bipartisanship

Published 1:00 pm Thursday, April 6, 2023

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – A fascinating facet of last week’s dedication of the papers of federal Judge Charles Pickering and former U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering to the Mississippi Political Collections at Mississippi State University’s Mitchell Memorial Library was hearing the father and son donors talk about their long relationships with the late Presiding Justice of the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia.

The MPC is the repository of archival materials from national, state and local lawmakers, judges, congressional staffers, scholars and activists whose careers are connected to Mississippi. The collection features Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and hosts the papers of figures as diverse as former Clinton era Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy to MSU alums Sen. John C. Stennis and U.S. Rep. “Sonny” Montgomery to U.S. District Judge William C. Keady.

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The collection’s value to researchers examines the Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal. With the U.S. Grant Presidential Library and the Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana, the MSU Libraries have become a favorite destination of scholarly and popular writers and researchers.

The younger Pickering is one in a long line of Mississippi’s Third District congressmen to donate their papers to MSU. The senior Pickering made clear that he desired to have his papers in the same library as his son’s.

During a panel discussion as part of the event, Judge Pickering discussed the U.S. Senate confirmation process after President George W. Bush nominated him in 2001 for elevation from a decade of honorable service on the bench of the U.S. District Court to a seat on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans devolved into a partisan circus.

Despite being declared “well qualified” by the American Bar Association after a decade on the federal district court bench, Pickering was denied a vote on his confirmation to the 5th Circuit by Senate Democrats utilizing a politically weaponized filibuster tactic that blocked votes on 10 Bush-era judicial nominees including Pickering.

Eventually, a bipartisan “Gang of 14” including seven Democrats and seven GOP senators compromised on a plan to clear the judicial nomination logjam, but Pickering was one of three judges never given a vote based on fears by the pro-abortion lobby that his religious views would render him unable to follow the law in reproductive rights cases.

That topic brought up Pickering’s long friendship with conservative Supreme Court Justice Scalia. For more than 20 years, Scalia and Pickering enjoyed a friendship based on a shared affinity for both the law and the outdoors – including hunting and fishing. Pickering talked at length about Scalia’s deep personal friendship with the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – easily the most liberal member of the court during her tenure. He remarked how their deep political differences never blocked their friendship and civility.

Another high court liberal – Justice Elena Kagan – accompanied Scalia and other conservatives on a Mississippi duck hunt in which civility and partisan rancor were replaced with fellowship and good humor.

Listening to his father’s account of those days with Scalia in Mississippi, the junior Pickering said: “If we can ever restore a common purpose, common mission, common language, common value system—at least in the best degree we can—that’s our only hope to restore civility. What I hope is we can go back to what we know works: sitting in the room with people that are different than yourself, from different places and with different beliefs, and sitting there until we find common ground.”

In the current political climate in this country, it’s harder to conceptualize bipartisan tolerance and cooperation to govern and serve the electorate. In recent years – marked by those who seek to govern by Tweet or post rather than by actual policymaking and are seemingly fixated on scorched-earth political obliteration of their partisan opponents rather than a realization that in most cases those “opponents” are their fellow Americans.

Bipartisanship and civility in politics have become as rare as unicorns and our state and nation are the worse for it. Neither political party is any more or less responsible for it and as voters, we’ve rewarded many of the more bitter practitioners of it in both parties.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com