President Bush bypassed Congress and installed Charles Pickering on the federal appeals court Friday in an election-year slap at Democrats who had blocked the nomination for more than two years.
Bush installed Pickering by a recess appointment, which avoids the confirmation process. Such appointments are valid until the next Congress takes office, in this case in January 2005. The so-called "recess appointment,"while unusual for political reasons, is not illegal, notes CBS Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen.
Pickering, a federal trial judge whom Bush nominated for a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, has been waiting for a confirmation vote in the Senate.
"I'm grateful to the president for his continued confidence and support," Pickering told The Associated Press from his home in Mississippi. "I look forward to serving on the 5th Circuit."
Democrats have accused Pickering of supporting segregation as a young man, and promoting anti-abortion and anti-voting rights views as a state lawmaker.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called the recess appointment "a finger in the eye to all those seeking fairness and bipartisanship in the judicial nominations process."
Another Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, said, "It is quite unfortunate that the president has chosen to seat Judge Pickering only days before the nation celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
Thompson said that while on the federal bench in Mississippi, Pickering had sought to "limit minority voting strength and to stifle the rights of women counter to everything Dr. King and the civil rights movement were all about."
The 5th Circuit handles appeals from Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana, and the federal judges on that circuit have been trailblazers on desegregation and voting rights in the past.
Pushing for Pickering's confirmation last year, Bush said, "He is a good, fair-minded man, and the treatment he has received by a handful of senators is a disgrace. He has wide bipartisan support from those who know him best."
Democrats have used the threat of a filibuster to block four U.S. Appeals Court nominees this congressional term: Pickering, Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, Texas judge Priscilla Owen and Hispanic lawyer Miguel Estrada. Others, including California judges Carolyn Kuhl and Janice Rogers Brown, are expected to be blocked by Democrats as well.
Frustrated at the delays, Estrada withdrew his nomination in September.
Pickering's nomination had sparked one of the most contentious battles between Republicans and Democrats over the federal courts.
He was the first of Bush's nominees to be blocked by Democrats, while they controlled the Senate in 2001, and his chances of getting through the Senate waned with the resignation of then-Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., over racially insensitive statements about the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
Pickering, however, refused to step aside and continued to try to build up support in the South. He strongly denied allegations of racial insensitivity.
"For 25 years I have strongly advocated that African-Americans and whites should sit down and talk in a positive and constructive manner to try to promote better understanding. This I've done," Pickering said after a meeting with the Mississippi Black Caucus last year.
Republicans concentrated on other nominees like Estrada and Owen, but always promised to get back to Pickering.
During Pickering's nomination hearing, Republicans accused Democrats of being religiously biased against Bush's anti-abortion nominees, a theme they continued with Estrada and other Bush anti-abortion nominees.