Opinion: Daily Journal

Edwards’ Unwelcome Attention

RALEIGH — U.S. Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, got used to soaking up good national press during his first couple of years. As his stature rises, however, he is sure to catch the notice of the sometimes-rambunctious Washington media. It’s ready happened three times in the past week.

First, he was the subject of the lead “Scrapbook” piece in the Feb. 25, 2002 issue of The Weekly Standard, a conservative weekly magazine. In the piece, entitled “The Borking of Pickering (cont.),” the unnamed writer referred to the controversy over U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering, whom President George W. Bush has tapped for a spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

Democrats, the Weekly Standard observed, had been attacking the Pickering nomination on the grounds that the judge had acted unethically in a 1994 case. Our own Sen. Edwards had taken the lead in this regard, accusing Pickering of violating the Code of Judicial Ethics and citing Justice Department documents concerning the case that Pickering himself had not been allowed to see.

Now the documents are public, and Edwards appears to have misrepresented what they show. Indeed, a George Mason University law professor, asked to review the documents for the Republicans, stated that “one is hard pressed to see any violation of Judge Pickering’s ethical duties here.”

The Weekly Standard went on to twist the knife a little:

“Edwards, who has presidential aspirations, may not have established himself as the equal of the established Borkers in his party, but he shows promise. And he certainly has the character. We still remember those ads when he ran for the Senate in 1998, which suggested he was born in North Carolina though in fact he came into the world in Seneca, South Carolina. In case you wonder, there’s documentation for that.”

A few days later, conservative columnist and commentator Robert Novak reported in his “Inside Report” column that Edwards had gotten into a tiff with leading trial attorneys over the Pickering nomination. Dickie Scruggs, a prominent attorney and national leader of the plaintiff’s bar, had urged Edwards not to attack Pickering, a friend and fellow Mississippian. Scruggs apparently viewed the Pickering controversy as nothing more than a political put-up job. But Edwards did it anyway. Here’s what Novak said happened next:

“Scruggs said he would no longer support Edwards for public office, and would urge politically potent trial lawyers across thecountry to do the same.

“That could dry up a major source of funds for the senator. Edwards’ advisors, however, were delighted to see the senator separating himself from the trial lawyer network and ingratiating himself with African-Americans and other liberals. Edwards attacked Pickering’s ties many years ago with segregationists.”

The Washington Times picked up the story today and added some additional information:

Edwards, using notes and information provided by Democratic staffers on the committee, belittled and berated Pickering for his role in a Mississippi cross-burning case. Before the hearing several Democratic senators on the committee, including Dianne Feinstein and Joseph Biden, were given the same information and declined to take on that line of questioning for fear of bringing on the ire of Scruggs and the trial lawyers.

“This was a hot potato, says a Democratic staffer on the Judiciary Committee. Everyone sensed that this subject would be hot and would be embarrassing to the Pickering family, to [U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, Scruggs’ brother-in-law] and to Scruggs. A lot of our people wouldn’t touch it. Edwards jumped at it. I think he realized this could make him a star.

“What Edwards apparently hadn’t banked on was Scruggs’ ire. Edwards blew off Scruggs’ calls before the hearing and now he’s probably sorry he did,” says another Judiciary Committee staffer. “Scruggs controls so much money within the trial lawyer community that if Scruggs were to say so, Edwards would probably have a hard time getting much money or support from that group.”

Welcome to the majors, Johnny.