Bush Blasts Judicial Jam

President Bush, with his legal counsel Alberto Gonzales in background, makes remarks on the judicial nomination process in the Rose Garden Friday, May, 9, 2003, in Washington. Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen, both Bush nominees, have been waiting for an up-or-down vote from the Senate.
Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue made efforts Friday to move judicial nominations forward in the face of Democratic obstruction.

In Rose Garden remarks, President Bush criticized Senate Democrats for delaying confirmation votes on his nominees for the federal bench. He demanded up-or-down votes on each one.

"The judicial confirmation process is broken and it must be fixed," he said. "While senators stall and hold on to old grudges, American justice is suffering."

Two years ago Friday, Mr. Bush sent his first 11 nominees for federal appeals courts to the Senate. Three still await confirmation — Miguel Estrada, Priscilla Owen and Terry Boyle.

Eight of the 18 men and women he has nominated for federal appeals court judgeships have waited over a year for a Senate floor vote.

"More appeals court nominees have had to wait for over a year in my presidency than in the last 50 years combined," the president said. "This is not just business as usual. This is an abdication of constitutional responsibility and it is hurting our country."

Accompanied by a handful of Republican and Democratic Sen. Zel Miller of Georgia, Mr. Bush renewed his demand for strict deadlines that would ensure the swift replacement of judges.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist proposed changes in Senate rules that would make it easier for the majority to overcome the filibuster tactics minority Democrats have used to block confirmation of several conservative judicial nominees.

"The need to reform is obvious and it is now urgent," Frist, R-Tenn., said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Mr. Bush said he has put forward "an historically diverse group whose character and credentials are impeccable. The Senate has a constitutional responsibility to hold an up or down vote."

The president uses carefully crafted rhetoric to plant the notion that the Constitution isn't being followed — by referring to senators' "constitutional responsibility" without explicitly saying such votes are required.

The Constitution gives senators the power to advise and consent on judicial nominations.

Frist proposed a process in which it would take gradually fewer votes to overcome filibusters preventing final votes on judicial confirmations.

Democrats were skeptical of the Frist plan. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," said Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. He said the Senate has confirmed 124 judicial nominees since Mr. Bush took office and "I don't see much broken."

It now takes 60 votes to end a filibuster. Republicans have failed in six attempts over the past few months to end a filibuster over the nomination of Michael Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Republicans have also unsuccessfully tried twice to end a filibuster over the nomination of Priscilla Owen to a federal appellate court judgeship.

Democrats complain that Owen, who sits on the Texas Supreme Court, is an anti-abortion, pro-business judicial activist whose opinions and rulings are overly influenced by her personal beliefs.

Estrada has never been a judge and has resisted turning over legal briefs written while a lawyer for the Bush administration, which Democrats claim are needed to vet his judicial temperament.

Under the Frist plan, it would take 60 votes to stop a filibuster on the first try, 57 on the second, 54 on the third and 51 on the fourth. The entire process would take about 13 days, he said.

He said his proposal was modeled after a broader plan, made by Democratic Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Tom Harkin of Iowa in 1995.

"Clearly we have entered upon a new era damaging to the Senate as an institution," he said of the recent use of the filibuster to stop the president's judicial nominations. "A disciplined minority can cast an ever-lengthening shadow over the confirmation process."