WASHINGTON—Rep. Tom DeLay, the majority leader of the House of Representatives, apologized Wednesday for his "inartful" criticism of federal judges, but said he wants the House Judiciary Committee to examine judges' decisions in the Terri Schiavo case as part of an inquiry into "judicial activism."
The apology and the request for a congressional inquiry into the Schiavo feeding tube affair was a remarkable move by the pugnacious Texas Republican, displaying contrition even as he launched a new offensive against a judiciary that he's said has "run amok."
Over the past week, a number of Republicans, including President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, have distanced themselves from DeLay's comments last month, when he said federal judges in the Schiavo case "thumbed their nose at Congress and the president" by not reinserting a feeding tube to the severely brain-damaged Florida woman. He added: "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."
Critics said the remarks were dangerously provocative, coming at the same time as two high-profile cases of violence against judges or their families.
"I sometimes get a little more passionate, particularly during the moment and the day that Terri Schiavo was starved to death," DeLay told reporters on Wednesday. "Emotions were flowing. I said something in an inartful way and I shouldn't have said it that way, and I apologize for saying it that way."
He stressed that he believed in an "independent judiciary" but said Congress had the constitutional right to oversee the judicial branch. He said it was under that authority that he'd asked the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., to look into the performance of federal judges in the Schiavo case.
"We would be shirking our constitutional obligations if we did not look at these issues as they come up," he said.
DeLay's continued attention on judges comes as religious conservatives have stepped up their attacks on court rulings ranging from the death penalty to gay marriage. It also comes against the backdrop of a looming fight in the Senate over several Bush appellate court nominees whom Democrats have blocked from confirmation.
Sensenbrenner spokesman Jeff Lungren said it was too early to determine how the committee would proceed. But Rep. Tom Feeney, a Florida Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee, said the federal judge who was assigned to the Schiavo case was obligated to hold a new hearing and hear new evidence under the terms of 11th-hour legislation passed by Congress last month.
The judge, James D. Whittemore of Federal District Court in Tampa, declined to hear the case and refused to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld his decision. The Supreme Court let that decision stand.
"I don't believe Congress should be impeaching judges because they disagree with their decisions," Feeney said. "The question is, how can a judge ignore federal law?"
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, another Judiciary Committee member, said it was hard to predict what the committee would do. "I think there are as many opinions of the case as there are members on the committee. We have done nothing yet to pursue anything official on the committee. But there are a lot of opinions."
Democrats criticized DeLay's decision to pursue the Schiavo case. "Republicans used to believe in limited government," said Jennifer Crider, the spokeswoman for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. "But now Republicans force the entire federal government to intervene in the personal tragedy of just one family."
In his off-camera session with reporters Wednesday, DeLay refused to answer any questions related to ethics issues that have arisen from his overseas travel, fund raising and ties to lobbyists who are under investigation. He said he's willing to meet with the top Republican and Democrat on the House ethics committee and turn over documents about any questionable case.
But the ethics committee—which consists of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans—is deadlocked over rules that Republicans pushed through earlier this year that make it harder to initiate an investigation against a member of Congress. The Democratic objections have kept the committee from officially reorganizing, rendering it useless. The committee on Wednesday failed to break that logjam.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who's said DeLay should step down as leader, said Republicans are to blame. "It's our problem," he said. "We're the ones who changed the rules. They're more than justified in not meeting."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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