Dems Won't Rush On Some Judges

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Verm.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) confer moments before the Judiciary committee vote on John Ashcroft's nomination.
President Bush's most controversial judicial nominees may have to wait until 2002 before they get a confirmation hearing, much less a vote, from the Democrat-controlled Senate.

While Democrats say they plan to get as many as 30 of Bush's judges confirmed before the end of the year — 17 of his 64 nominees have been approved so far — none of them will likely be the four nominees who could cause long, drawn out debates among senators.

That means Bush Appeals Court nominees Miguel Estrada, Jeff Sutton, Terrance Boyle and Michael McConnell will likely have to wait until next year before finding out whether the Democrats in control of their destinies will even allow a vote on their nominations.

"I'm trying to get the ones who are non-controversial" first, said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "We're trying to get through as many as we can."

Republicans don't believe him. GOP senators have dropped their blockade of spending bills as a tactic for pressuring Democrats to allow more judges through. But Republicans still accuse those on the other side of the aisle of playing political games with Bush's nominations.

"I don't think we're doing the job, and I think the American people are going to suffer because of it," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and its former chairman.

"It's purely partisan politics," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., one of the leaders of the bill blockade. "Be truthful about it. They don't want conservative judges on the court."

Thirty-two of Bush's nominees are awaiting a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hearings but no committee votes have been held on 10 other nominees and one other has received committee clearance but has yet to be voted on by the full Senate.

When President Clinton left office after eight years, 67 of his judicial nominees had never had a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats say.

Sheldon Goldman, a University of Massachusetts professor and author of the book, "Picking Federal Judges: Lower Court Selection From Roosevelt Through Reagan," said Leahy has done well in getting 19 judges confirmed since June. Goldman, however, added that all judicial nominees, even the controversial ones, deserve a quick hearing.

"I would think a case would have to be made for having it within three months," Goldman said. "Now, of course, September 11 and all that's followed have completely interrupted the whole saga, and then the anthrax cases obviously, so under these circumstances you might want to talk six months, seven months. But within a reasonable time frame, hearings should be held and the Senate Judiciary Committee should vote."

Sutton, McConnell, Boyle and Estrada were among the first 11 nominations Bush made on May 9. Along with five other judicial nominees, they have been waiting six months for Senate action. They also still face a rocky road ahead in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

McConell, nominated to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, is recognized in legal circles as especially conservative on abortion rights and church-state separation.

Disability activists protest the selection of Sutton, a former Ohio state solicitor, for the 6th Circuit Appeals Court because he successfully argued to the Supreme Court that state employees can't use federal disability rights to collect damages for on-the-job discrimination.

Estrada, nominee to the District of Columbia Appeals Court, is a partner in the Washington firm that represented Bush at the Supreme Court during his post-election legal fight with Al Gore.

Bush himself made a personal appeal to Democrats for Estrada. "Get him moving before it's too late," the president said.

And Boyle, nominated for the 4th Circuit Appeals Court, has been part of a decade-long political tug of war. Bush's father nominated the former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms to the federal bench in 1991. Democrats blocked Boyle then, and Helms, R-N.C., subsequently retaliated by blocking all of Clinton's nominees from North Carolina.

Now North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, has yet to complete the paperwork that would allow Boyle's nomination to go to a vote.

Leahy might be right to wait on nominees who might cause fights, Goldman said.

"You want to get the more confirmable people through," he said. "You don't want to gum up the works with the people who are more controversial. But they should all have hearings. Whether they have them before December or they have them early next year, they should all have hearings."

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