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DeLay's Banana Republic

April 25, 2005

Since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, the U.S. has tried to mold Latin America in its own image. But credit House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other conservative Republicans for taking a different approach. With their war on the so-called imperial judiciary, they seem intent on importing Latin American ways to the U.S.

The region to the south, where authoritarian leaders have more often than not been the rule, continues to have a hazy attachment to the rule of law. Ecuadorean President Lucio Gutierrez was ousted by legislators Wednesday. He came to grief partly because he was seen as a tool of the International Monetary Fund, but also because of the turmoil surrounding his dismissal of Supreme Court judges. Then there's Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, who is clinging to power but seeing his popularity plummet as a result of scandals, including the revelation that a top aide apparently tried to bribe judges. Meanwhile, presidential hopeful and Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been charged with abuse of authority and is embroiled in controversy about whether politicians should have to obey the judiciary.

Sure, DeLay & Co. are not attempting to bribe judges, and they are cloaking their assault on "activist judges" in religious overtones. But the result is the same. DeLay says he wants to hold Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, accountable for citing international laws in a recent majority opinion. And DeLay and his counterpart in the Senate, Bill Frist, are working to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominations. Meanwhile, evangelical Christian leaders are looking for ways to strip funding from the courts of judges they don't like.

These attacks on the judiciary threaten the constitutional separation of powers that has long allowed this nation's government to function more effectively than those of some of its neighbors. Perhaps no one has expressed this more clearly than conservative Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist in his traditional year-end report on the federal courts: "The Constitution protects judicial independence not to benefit judges, but to promote the rule of law: Judges are expected to administer the law fairly, without regard to public reaction."

Until recently, the GOP focused on passing tax cuts for the wealthy while paying lip service to social conservatives. But perhaps the tax-cut crusade, which prompted Democrats to charge that the United States will experience the kind of social stratification typical of Latin America, should have been a tipoff to the grander designs of DeLay and others. They may well have shed Yanqui arrogance toward Latin America more thoroughly than anyone ever imagined.

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