WASHINGTON — U.S. District Judge Kenneth L. Ryskamp of Miami is a tall, gangly man--hard-working, intensely religious and somewhat humorless.
His friends say he is decent and fair-minded, but a "total political innocent." When put on the spot, he has a tendency, they admit, to say the wrong thing.
His penchant for the ill-advised comment may have cost him confirmation to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. If so, he would be the first of President Bush's 76 court nominees to be defeated in the Senate.
During his confirmation hearings last month, Ryskamp said he threw out a police brutality verdict won by four young black men in West Palm Beach, Fla., because the "minor little prick marks" they received from police dogs might provide a beneficial "negative reinforcement" against committing future crimes.
"I was thinking of their own welfare," he told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Both the Judiciary Committee and American Bar Assn. say a judge should not belong to a club that discriminates based on race, sex, religion or ethnic background. Nonetheless, Ryskamp maintained membership for 23 years in the Riviera Club in Coral Gables despite its well-publicized refusal to admit Jewish members, including the publisher of the Miami News.
Ryskamp said he stayed in the club because he did not believe that it discriminated, despite a thick sheaf of local news stories recounting, for example, how the city of Coral Gables refused to hold events at the club because of its discriminatory policies.
"I felt like the newspapers, as they often do, misrepresent and distort things," he said, noting that the club's board of directors had told him the stories were "not true." A week before the Senate opened hearings on his appeals court nomination, however, Ryskamp resigned from the club.
Asked by Senate aides to explain the club's policy of allowing only English to be spoken on its premises, Ryskamp launched into a discussion that included the observation that "Cubans always show up two hours late for weddings."
"Miami is like a foreign country," he said. "Club members just wanted a place where we didn't have to hear Spanish."
Liberal activists say these and other comments made to Senate aides or Judiciary Committee members only confirm Ryskamp's reputation as a judge who is unfair and insensitive to civil rights plaintiffs.
"I think it's unconscionable for the Bush Administration to send up someone with this kind of record of hostility toward civil rights," said Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice, which closely monitors federal judgeships.
But Justice Department officials and conservative activists say Ryskamp has been unfairly tarred by a few comments taken out of context. They also say liberals targeted Ryskamp for defeat as a part of a larger campaign to revive the pending Civil Rights Act on Capitol Hill.
"The left hasn't won a major judicial battle since Bork," said Tom Jipping of Coalitions for America, a conservative group, referring to the 1987 defeat of Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork. "They have a political agenda to pursue, and defeating Ken Ryskamp is part of that agenda, and they are willing to distort his record to do it."
This week, Justice Department officials will try to rescue the nomination by launching a campaign stressing Ryskamp's active support for Christian causes in south Florida. Ryskamp's much-publicized comments during the Senate hearings do not reflect the true character of the man, they say.
"He is not a man of words, but he is a man of deeds," one official said.
For example, Cuban-American church leaders in Miami say Ryskamp has given his time and money to help build churches in minority areas.
The Rev. Manuel Salabarria said that in 1978, Ryskamp, then a prominent Miami attorney, led the effort to build a new church in the city's Little Havana neighborhood.
"He has been a true and loyal friend to the Spanish-speaking community," said Salabarria, who said Ryskamp wrote out a $125,000 personal check to support the new church. "He gave more support to our church than to his own church because he said we needed it more."
Moreover, Ryskamp and his wife often attend services at Rev. Salabarria's El Redentor Presbyterian Church even though they do not understand Spanish, he said.
Ryskamp, 58, was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., and graduated from Calvin College there. He earned his law degree at the University of Miami and made a reputation as a lawyer who specialized in defending railroads and insurance companies.
An active supporter of the Republican Party, he was chosen by President Ronald Reagan for a federal judgeship in 1986.
The next year, he presided over the trial of the notorious Miami "River Cops," who had been accused of seizing cocaine and then selling it themselves.
It was Ryskamp's first criminal trial, and Douglas L. Williams, a veteran criminal lawyer who defended one of the police officers, came away impressed.