CAMDEN, Maine -- Let us stop to observe a few mileposts on the downward path to the utter degradation of political discourse in this country.

            A recent newspaper advertising campaign by "independent" groups supporting President Bush shows a closed courtroom door with the sign, "Catholics Need Not Apply," hanging on it. The ad argues that William Pryor Jr., attorney general of Alabama and a right-wing anti-abortion nominee to the federal appeals court, is under attack for his "deeply held" Catholic beliefs.

            Actually, Pryor is under attack because he's a hopeless dipstick. That he also happens to be Catholic and anti-abortion has nothing to do with his unfitness for the federal bench. The only person I know who believes one's closely held religious and moral convictions should make one ineligible for the federal bench is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia argued last year that any judge who is opposed to the death penalty should resign, on account of it is the law.

            By that reasoning, any judge who is opposed to abortion out of deep moral conviction should also resign. Even though that would include Scalia's resignation, an eventuation devoutly to be wished in my opinion, I think he's wrong.

            Pryor has said that Roe vs. Wade "ripped the Constitution and ripped out the life of millions of unborn children." Hey, there's objectivity for you.

            His record on civil rights, states' rights and gay rights is equally ideological. He has a record of incendiary comments, which certainly bring into question his "judicial temperament." When the Supreme Court delayed an execution in Alabama, Pryor called them "nine octogenarian lawyers." He once prayed for "no more Souters," a reference to Justice David Souter.

            The New York Times observed, "He has turned the Alabama attorney general's office into a taxpayer-financed right-wing law firm." He has argued against a key part of the Voting Rights Act and was the only state attorney general to argue against the Violence Against Women Act. Who cares if he's Catholic? He'd be a disgrace on the bench if he were a Buddhist.

            Moving right on down the road to complete ideological madness, we now have the House Judiciary Committee threatening to investigate the sentencing records of every federal judge in the country for suspected "political" bias. All this stems from the matter of James Rosenbaum, chief judge for the Minnesota Federal District Court, who thinks sentencing guidelines for low-level drug dealers are too harsh.

            Is there anyone who doesn't think so? Even the Texas legislature, that model of 19th century thinking, has decided we should provide treatment for first-time small drug offenders, rather than locking them up for years. Locking them up is getting to be a very expensive proposition in our very broke state, but surely that had nothing to do with their decision.

            After Rosenbaum's testimony, the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, prepared to subpoena Rosenbaum's records to see if he had imposed any "unlawfully lenient sentences." In fact he had, giving one guy four years (nine months below the guidelines) and another a month less that the minimum recommended.

            The sentencing guidelines are the consequence of a 1984 crime law, passed at the height of the drug hysteria, that took effect in 1987. Victoria Toensing, Rosenbaum's lawyer, said: "I was present at the creation of those guidelines. May God forgive me for ever supporting them." Amen.

            Look, these sentencing guidelines are awful. Everybody knows they're awful, so now anyone who stands up and says so gets subpoenaed? Do you realize how banana-republic this is? Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, one of the many ornaments we have exported to Washington, claims the seven-member Sentencing Commission is "systematically trying to lessen the drug penalties." I should hope bloody so. If showing evidence of elementary common sense is grounds for a subpoena, stick a fork in us, we're done.

            The "Watch on the Rhine" quality of our public life these days deserves serious attention. As one who studies the small, buried stories on the back pages of major newspapers, I am becoming increasingly uneasy. This is more than just, "Boy, do their policies suck." There's a creepy advance of something more menacing than bad policies.

            I keep thinking of Mussolini's definition of fascism: "Fascism should more properly be called 'corporatism,' since it is the marriage of government and corporate power." When was the last time we saw this administration do something that involved standing up to some corporate special interest in favor of the great majority of the people?

            To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.