The Consortium

Last Word: Judge Walsh's Warning

Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh was a widely respected Republican of the old school. He had helped Thomas Dewey break Tammany Hall's corrupt grip on New York City. But Walsh was also admired by Richard Nixon who wanted Walsh to be the original Watergate special prosecutor, according to H.R. Haldeman's diaries.

So, when the Iran-contra scandal broke wide open in fall 1986, a senior three-judge federal panel tapped Walsh, known for his distinguished Republican legal career, to be the special prosecutor in charge of the complex investigation into President Reagan's foreign policy mis-adventures.

For the next six years, Walsh oversaw a serious-though-plodding probe of that scandal, infuriating Republican leaders, such as Sen. Bob Dole, who favored a tidy cover-up. Walsh's diligence also led to a behind-the-scenes power play by conservative federal judges to undercut Walsh's probe and turn the special prosecutor apparatus into another tool of conservative power.

This legal coup began when hard-line Reagan judges David Sentelle and Laurence Silberman overturned Walsh's felony conviction of Oliver North, by a two-to-one vote, in 1990. Sentelle, a protege of North Carolina's conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, was also part of the panel that reversed the guilty verdicts against North's White House boss, Adm. John Poindexter.

When Walsh moved to appeal the North ruling (which was based an unprecedented application of immunity rules), Walsh was supported by the Justice Department's career appellate division. But Walsh was opposed by Bush's solicitor general, none other than Kenneth Starr.

While the battle over the North case played out, conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist was fixing the game at another level. He replaced the senior panel that traditionally picked special prosecutors with a new panel run by Sentelle. The revamped panel was in place when Republican Robert Fiske was ousted as Whitewater special prosecutor and was replaced by legal conservative activist Starr.

Indeed, all the conservative judges involved in this seizure of the special prosecutor apparatus work closely with the far-right Federalist Society, which has as a principal goal the purging of liberalism from the federal bench. The Federalist Society is so far right that it has even attacked the American Bar Association as "collectivist, radical."

In an interview, Walsh said he found the "dogmatism that seems to come out of the Federalist group" troubling. Walsh was especially concerned about the power of the Federalist "clique" on the federal bench and its new dominance of the special prosecutor machinery, which has effectively given the Right its own mini-Justice Department. Because of that, Walsh said he saw a serious danger in Starr turning the Whitewater probe from the fair inquiry that Fiske began into "a political weapon."

(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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