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Judges on ABA Panel Describe Living in Fear, Years After Unpopular RulingsSpeaking at annual conference, four judges discuss the disruptions and death threats that followed high-profile rulings
More than two years after enraging right-wing groups by ordering Terri Schiavo's feeding tube removed, George Greer still peers nervously over his shoulder at times. In fact, the Florida judge told a rapt audience Friday, he even used an alias when he registered at his San Francisco hotel for the annual ABA meeting. Greer was one of four current or former judges who described how their lives were affected by their rulings in high-profile cases involving hot-button issues.
The Recorder2007-08-13 12:00:00 AM
More than two years after enraging right-wing groups by ordering Terri Schiavo's feeding tube removed, George Greer still peers over his shoulder nervously at times.
In fact, the Florida judge told a rapt audience Friday at the American Bar Association's annual meeting, he even used an alias when he registered at his San Francisco hotel on this trip.
Two years ago, he said, someone in the Bay Area threatened to kill him over his decision to end life support for the brain-damaged Schiavo. And even though that person was prosecuted and jailed, Greer said, he's taking no chances.
"It is a little unnerving," he said. "I still can't see a strange car come down my street without wondering [who's behind the steering wheel]."
Greer, who said he's on the federal bench, was one of four current or former judges who appeared in a 90-minute seminar in San Francisco's Moscone Center West to describe how their lives were affected by their rulings in high-profile cases involving hot-button issues.
Besides Greer, there was New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto, who 10 months ago participated in a ruling saying gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights as married couples, but stopped short of approving same-sex marriage.
Eileen O'Neill, a former Texas judge who in 1993 held Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry and other anti-abortion activists in contempt for violating an order directing them to quit harassing several Houston-area doctors, was on the panel. And so was former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, kicked off the bench by voters in 1986 along with two other justices for reversing death sentences.
All four spoke about the consequences of their actions, but stood firmly behind them, while fretting somewhat about the political and social pressures facing judges these days. Unstated, but hovering in the ether, was the fact that many judges believe the current presidential administration has exacerbated the problem by blaming unpopular rulings on "activist judges."
"It's not easy being a judge, but one of the things we uphold is the Constitution," Philadelphia-based U.S. District Judge Berle Schiller, chairman of the National Conference of Federal Trial Judges, told the crowd at the start of Friday's seminar. "And all these [four] jurists have been willing to stand up for the Constitution."
At their own risk, one might add.
Soon after the New Jersey Supreme Court issued its ruling on same-sex marriage -- which didn't fully appease parties on either side -- Rivera-Soto said he got a letter from a radio talk-show host announcing that his home address and phone number had been broadcast. The letter writer also advised the justice that the show's prime audience included white supremacists, skinheads and members of both the Aryan Nation and the Ku Klux Klan.
"I hope you have a good life," Rivera-Soto quoted from the letter. "However long that lasts now that people know how to find you."
Greer talked about he and his wife had to be placed under 24-hour watch after Operation Rescue posted their home address and phone number on its Web site. All of their mail was checked by authorities and on one occasion dead flowers were delivered to their condominium with a note reading, "No Food, No Water" -- a reference to Schiavo.
"It got to the point," Greer said, "that we felt a little trapped in our apartment."
O'Neill said she "pretty much ... became the anti-Christ" after issuing an order preventing anti-abortion activists from harassing doctors. Her home address also was posted on Operation Rescue's Web site and both her office and cell phones were flooded with "hate messages."
O'Neill said she was placed under 24-hour police protection too, but found out "only much later ... that there had been certain kinds of death threats against me."
Reynoso, now a professor emeritus at the University of California at Davis' King Hall School of Law, didn't talk about threats, but contended that the campaign to force him off the bench was filled with misinformation. Word was out that he was putting murderers back on the streets, Reynoso said, even though his decisions only reversed death sentences, not the convictions.
"The people who were saying this knew it was not true," he said. "The public didn't."
O'Neill and Reynoso complained that judges, by the nature of their position, aren't allowed to respond to allegations and threats, and that local bar associations can only do so much. Greer complained about the loose-cannon nature of bloggers who can say anything -- and stir up hatred -- without being held accountable.
Rivera-Soto, however, said he felt criticism and harsh reactions come with the territory for judges, and that in the long run they're good for the judiciary.
"We're treated like demigods, and we're not," he said of judges. "We put our pants on like everybody else and we make mistakes."
Rivera-Soto said many judges bring an ivory tower mentality to their work, and make themselves targets of wrath.
"If we have an aristocracy in the United States," he said, "it's the judiciary. And judges should remember that aristocracies generally don't come to a good end."
Editor's note: The Recorder's blog, Legal Pad, has more from the various events at the American Bar Association's meeting in San Francisco -- diversity, copyright in the Internet age, lying clients and more. Go to http://legalpad.typepad.com.