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KWAME HOLMAN: Last January, Judge Howard Baer, Jr., a Manhattan U.S. District Court jurist and Clinton appointee, set off a storm of criticism when he ruled that 80 pounds of cocaine and heroin found by police in a car could not be used as evidence.
The incident involved these two New York police officers who searched a car after seeing four men put duffle bags in the trunk in the Washington Heights section of the city. The men ran away when they spotted the police, but a woman, who owned the car, was arrested. In declaring the drugs inadmissible, Judge Baer said there was no probable cause to search the car because it is not unusual for people to be leery of police in an inner-city neighborhood like Washington Heights. Soon after, New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani publicly criticized Baer’s decision.
MAYOR RUDOLPH GUILIANI, New York City: I think Judge Baer is wrong. I think the opinion is wrong. I have read it, and I think what he’s done to the reputation of, of at least one police officer, probably two, is very, very unfortunate.
KWAME HOLMAN: And so did New York Governor George Pataki.
GOV. GEORGE PATAKI, (R) New York: His comments towards the police are outrageous and I think certainly question whether or not he should sit in any case involving New York City police.
KWAME HOLMAN: But February, Republican leaders in Congress were criticizing Judge Baer in speeches on the House and Senate floors. Other Republicans suggested they’d make the Baer decision an issue in the Presidential campaign. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah was a frequent critic.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH, (R) Utah: [captioning on screen: Morning Business is the period of a day when Members may introduce bills or speak on any subject. Morning Business may take place at any time of day.] Judge Baer sparked outrage throughout the nation when he suppressed evidence seized during the stop of an automobile by police who had witnessed four men drop off two bags in the trunk of a car at 5 AM without speaking to the driver and who then rapidly left the scene when they saw the police officer looking at them. The bags turned out to contain about 80 pounds of drugs, hard drugs.
KWAME HOLMAN: House Speaker Newt Gingrich was joined by more than a hundred House Republicans in calling for Baer’s resignation, and in his victory speech after the Midwest primaries on March 19th, Sen. Bob Dole cited the Baer case as an example of the kind of judges President Clinton appoints versus those who would be appointed under a Dole administration.
SEN. ROBERT DOLE, Republican Presidential Candidate: It’s a choice between the candidate who will appoint conservative judges to the court and a candidate who appoints liberal judges who bend the laws to let drug dealers free.
KWAME HOLMAN: Then, two weeks ago, Judge Baer was denounced at a White House briefing. White House Spokesman Michael McCurry hinted that President Clinton might ask for Baer’s resignation because of his ruling.
MICHAEL McCURRY, White House Spokesman: You know, we would evaluate Judge Baer’s record as anyone legitimately should on the full breadth of his cases. There are a lot of Reagan- appointed judges, Bush-appointed judges that have made wrong-headed, stupid decisions too, and I haven’t seen the Republican Congress urge their resignations.
REPORTER: Again, back to my question, is that a no, no, he is not going to call for the resignation?
MICHAEL McCURRY: That’s–we are interested in seeing how he rules in this upcoming consideration of the case.
REPORTER: Are you leaving open the possibility?
MICHAEL McCURRY: I think I made that pretty clear by that answer.
KWAME HOLMAN: The statements by McCurry and the Republican leaders drew sharp criticism from judicial leaders as a threat to the independence of the court. Four New York federal appeals court judges issued a statement saying the criticism of Judge Baer had gone too far. They wrote: “These attacks do a grave disservice to the principle of an independent judiciary and, more significantly, mislead the public as to the role of judges in a constitutional democracy.”
The White House has made public a letter written by the White House counsel saying the President supports the independence of the federal judiciary and that the issues before Judge Baer should be resolved in the court. And yesterday, Judge Baer reversed his decision. He said he changed his mind based on new evidence presented at a second hearing in the drug case. Today, President Clinton did not back off of the White House criticism of the Judge.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I think there’s been a little overreaction to this. The Judge has lifetime tenure, so that to insulate the judge in our system from pressure. That does not mean that the judge, or any judge, should be entitled or any court to be entitled not only to lifetime tenure but a gag rule on everyone else.