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National NOW Times >> Fall 2003 >> Article

Right Wing Plays Politics With Judicial Nominees

by Amanda Cherrin, Communications Intern

The judicial confirmation process is becoming increasingly acrimonious as hostilities mount between Senate Democrats and Republicans charged with evaluating George W. Bush's nominees for federal court positions. Foul play has become standard fare in the Judiciary Committee as a steady stream of right-wing nominees come before them, sometimes three at a time.

Judiciary Committee Chair Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is at the center of the controversy. Throwing standard procedures aside, Hatch forced a confirmation hearing for three controversial nominees on one day, defied committee rules that allow Democrats to debate the merits of a nomination before the committee, and refused to honor the same "blue-slip" objections to judicial nominees from home-state senators that he regularly allowed Republicans to use against Clinton nominees when he chaired the committee during the Clinton administration.

This change in policy has exacerbated the conflict in the Sixth Circuit, where objections from both of Michigan's Senators, Democrats Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, were ignored by Hatch in the cases of four nominees to the Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals, which includes Michigan.

This is a sharp contrast from the treatment of two of President Clinton's moderate Sixth Circuit nominees, who were rejected due to objections by a single Republican senator. Furious over the breach in procedure, Levin and Stabenow proposed the creation of a bipartisan judicial nominating commission similar to that already in place in Wisconsin.

"Orrin Hatch's behavior is clearly biased," said NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives. "Ignoring the blue-slips of Democratic senators after allowing Republican blue-ships to repeatedly block Clinton nominees is political favoritism. A bipartisan committee is needed to resolve these differences and to ensure a federal judiciary made up of fair and impartial judges." NOW is one of 18 progressive organizations on a joint statement from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, condemning the current ineffectiveness of the judicial confirmation process and calling for the formation of a bipartisan committee to bring an impartial resolution to the impasse facing the Sixth Circuit.

Democrats have had some success in countering Bush's judicial nominees; however, a significant number—151 at this date—have already been confirmed.

On Sept. 4, more than two years after Bush first nominated him, Miguel Estrada withdrew his name from consideration for the federal appeals court. Senate Democrats had held strong on this conservative nominee – organizing numerous filibusters to force the Justice Department to release legal memoranda written by Estrada and insisting that Estrada answer key questions about his views before they proceeded to a final vote on the nomination.

"Two years ago it was hard to find anyone in Washington who would touch the f-word – filibuster," said NOW President Kim Gandy. "But as the Bush Administration continues its relentless campaign to hijack the federal courts with right-wing nominees, the tide has started to turn. And because these senators stuck to their principles and held the line, Estrada was forced to back down. This, in essence, is democracy in action."

In August, Senate Democrats succeeded in blocking the nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor to the U.S. Court of Appeals, making him the third Bush appeals court nominee to be subjected to a Senate filibuster.

Pryor, the latest in a series of right-wing ideologue nominees, opposes the Supreme Court decisions Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas and has argued against the Violence Against Women Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Voting Rights Act. He has also used his position as Attorney General to advance his ideological views in Alabama.

The rejection of Pryor's nomination to the 11th Circuit court followed on the heels of Senate votes in which Republicans were unable to break the Democrats' united filibuster against right-wing Texas judge Priscilla Owen.

Despite these victories, however, the Bush administration continues to have success in its attempts to stack the federal courts with conservative extremists. Confirmations of extremist judges to Courts of Appeal include Deborah Cook, Michael McConnell, Edward Prado, John Roberts and Victor Wolski—all of whom have appalling records on women's rights and civil rights issues.

"Right now we are only stopping the worst of the worst," said Vives. "That means many radical conservatives are still taking lifetime seats on the federal appeals courts where they will be able to damage our progress for decades to come."

"These right-wing judges will use their prominent positions to undo all the rights and advances that we've fought so hard to gain," Vives continued. "Until we have a bipartisan committee overseeing the process, the Democratic senators need to use the filibuster strategy more often."

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