Charles W. Pickering

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Charles W. Pickering
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
In office
January 16, 2004 – December 8, 2004
Appointed by George W. Bush
Preceded by Henry Politz
Succeeded by Leslie Southwick
Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi
In office
October 1, 1990 – January 16, 2004
Appointed by George H. W. Bush
Preceded by Walter Nixon
Succeeded by Keith Starrett
Chairperson of the Mississippi Republican Party
In office
Preceded by Clarke Reed
Succeeded by Michael Retzer
Personal details
Born Charles Willis Pickering
(1937-05-29) May 29, 1937 (age 81)
Laurel, Mississippi, U.S.
Political party Democratic (Before 1964)
Republican (1964–present)
Alma mater Jones County Junior College
University of Mississippi
Religion Baptist

Charles Willis Pickering, Sr. (born May 29, 1937), is a retired federal judge who served on the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi and briefly on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Early life and education

A native of Laurel, Pickering received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1959 from the University of Mississippi in Oxford. He earned his LL.B. in 1961 from the University of Mississippi School of Law.


Active in the early 1960s in the Democratic Party, Pickering switched affiliation in 1964 to the Mississippi Republican Party. He said at the time that "the people of [Mississippi] were heaped with humiliation and embarrassment at the Democratic Convention" in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This was during the period when blacks were still effectively disfranchised in Mississippi, as they had been since prior to passage of the 1890 state constitution and other laws designed to block them from registering to vote. Civil rights activists had worked to register voters and founded the MFDP to show that African Americans wanted to vote. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed with bipartisan support in Congress and signed by President Johnson; the law authorized federal oversight and enforcement of voting in states in which minorities were historically underrepresented as voters.

Along with other disaffected Democrats, Pickering played a key role in building the Republican Party in Mississippi in the ensuing years.[1][2]

As a young prosecutor in the sixties, Pickering worked closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to pursue the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, according to the U.S. Senate Congressional Record from October 30, 2003.[3]) In 1966, he testified against Klan member Sam Bowers, who was being tried for the murder of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer. After testifying, Pickering and his family needed FBI protection. The Klan later claimed victory when Pickering was defeated in his campaign for a seat in the House of the state legislature.[4]

Pickering was once a law partner of Carroll Gartin, a Democrat who served a third term as lieutenant governor from 1964 until his death in office in 1966. Gartin had won the No. 2 position in state government over the Democrat-turned-Republican Stanford Morse of Gulfport, a former member of the Mississippi State Senate. Morse ran on the Republican gubernatorial ticket headed by former Democrat Rubel Phillips, formerly of Corinth, the first serious attempt by the GOP in a recent gubernatorial contest in Mississippi.[5]

Pickering was appointed and served as city prosecuting attorney in Laurel. He was thereafter elected and served four years as the Jones County prosecutor. After serving briefly as Laurel municipal judge, he was elected to two terms in the Mississippi State Senate, serving from 1972 to 1980.

In 1978, Pickering sought the Republican nomination for the United States Senate seat that was being vacated by the veteran Democrat James O. Eastland, but he lost his party's nomination to U.S. Representative Thad Cochran. Cochran in a three-way general election won by a plurality against Democrat Maurice Dantin and Independent Charles Evers, a figure in the civil rights movement. In 1979, Pickering was the Republican nominee for state attorney general, having been defeated by the Democrat and later Governor William Allain. He ran on the ticket headed for the second consecutive time by the GOP gubernatorial nominee, businessman Gil Carmichael of Meridian. From 1976 to 1978, Pickering also was the chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, having succeeded Clarke Reed in that position.

In 1976, Pickering chaired the subcommittee of the Republican Party's Platform Committee; it called for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade, which established women's right to abortions. In 1984, as president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, Pickering was presiding when the Convention adopted a resolution calling for legislation to outlaw abortion except when necessary to preserve a woman's life.

On October 2, 1990, Pickering was appointed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi by U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush.

Fifth Circuit nomination under Bush

On May 25, 2001, during the 107th Congress, U.S. President George W. Bush nominated Pickering for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated by Henry Anthony Politz who had taken senior status in 1999, but Pickering's nomination was not acted upon favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee then under the control of Democratic senator, Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. Nevertheless, on January 7, 2003, President Bush renominated Pickering to the same position. With the Republicans now in charge of the committee during the 108th Congress, Pickering's nomination was voted out to the full Senate. With no way to stop his confirmation, the Senate Democrats chose to filibuster Pickering in order to prevent him from receiving a straight up-or-down confirmation vote.

Democratic opposition to Pickering was based mainly upon two factors. First, during two hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he maintained a position opposing abortion. Second, he was accused of "glaring racial insensitivity" because of a 1994 hate-crimes case in which he decided that 25-year-old Daniel Swan, who had participated with two others in a cross burning, should receive a reduced sentence. The other participants in the cross-burning had escaped jail sentences for the crime because of plea bargains. During the course of testimony, Pickering came to suspect the Civil Rights Division had made a plea bargain with the wrong defendant. He felt that one of the other defendants, a 17-year-old, was more likely the ringleader of the group. When it came time to sentence Swan, Pickering questioned whether it made sense that the most-guilty defendant got off with a misdemeanor and no jail time, while a less-guilty defendant would be sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. "The recommendation of the government in this instance is clearly the most egregious instance of disproportionate sentencing recommended by the government in any case pending before this court," Pickering wrote. "The defendant [Swan] clearly had less racial animosity than the juvenile." Pickering sentenced Swan to two years in prison rather than to the seven and a half years originally requested by the Justice Department. The Clinton Department of Justice later agreed with Pickering and requested a two-year sentence instead.[6]

Groups that opposed Pickering's confirmation to the Fifth Circuit included: the national (but not the Mississippi chapter) of the NAACP, the Legislative Black Caucus, the Magnolia Bar Association, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Mississippi Worker's Center for Human Rights, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Alliance for Justice, the Human Rights Campaign, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the National Bar Association, the American Association of University Women, the National Women's Law Center, the National Partnership for Women and Families, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Women's Political Caucus, the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of School Administrators, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, the United Steelworkers of America and others.

However, Pickering's nomination was supported by several past leaders of the NAACP in Mississippi. One of his strongest supporters was former senatorial candidate Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Senate Republicans failed to overcome a filibuster of Pickering's nomination on October 30, 2003, when he did not receive enough votes to invoke cloture and end debate on his nomination. Frustrated with the obstruction of the Senate Democrats, on January 16, 2004, President George W. Bush gave Pickering a recess appointment to the Fifth Circuit.

In December 2004, unable to overcome his filibuster and with his recess appointment about to end, Pickering announced that he was withdrawing his name from consideration as a nominee to the Fifth Circuit and retiring from the federal bench. He later was replaced as a nominee by Michael B. Wallace, but Wallace's nomination was also eventually withdrawn due to Democratic opposition. Only in 2007 was the seat allowed to be filled with Leslie H. Southwick, who was confirmed almost entirely because of the support of California's Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein.

Thomas Sowell wrote of the nomination that "Judge Charles Pickering, a federal judge in Mississippi who defended the civil rights of blacks for years and defied the Ku Klux Klan back when that was dangerous, was depicted as a racist when he was nominated for a federal appellate judgeship. No one even mistakenly thought he was a racist. The point was simply to discredit him for political reasons—and it worked."[7]

Personal life

Pickering is married to Margaret Ann Pickering, with whom he has three daughters and one son, former U.S. Representative Charles "Chip" Pickering, Jr. They have 21 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.[8]

See also


  1. Crespino, Joseph. (2007). In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p.103.
  2. Kornacki, Steve (2011-02-03) "The 'Southern Strategy', fulfilled",
  3. [1]
  4. [2], 25 March 2004
  5. Billy Hathorn, "Challenging the Status Quo: Rubel Lex Phillips and the Mississippi Republican Party (1963-1967)", The Journal of Mississippi History XLVII, November 1985, No. 4, p. 240-264
  8. Pickering, Charles (2012-12-15). "Commencement Speech". Commencement Program. Retrieved 2012-12-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Party political offices
Preceded by
Clarke Reed
Chairperson of the Mississippi Republican Party
Succeeded by
Michael Retzer
Legal offices
Preceded by
Walter Nixon
Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi
Succeeded by
Keith Starrett
Preceded by
Henry Politz
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
Succeeded by
Leslie Southwick