GOP's Triple Play On Judges

Senate Republicans, returning to an accelerated judgeship-approval process they abandoned two years ago, launched simultaneous confirmation hearings Wednesday for three of President Bush's nominees. Democrats objected that the contested nominations were being moved too quickly.

Jeff Sutton and Deborah Cook, both nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit; and John Roberts, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, were originally scheduled for confirmation hearings on May 23, 2001, one month before Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont defected from the GOP and threw Senate control to the Democrats.

The three never got a hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee until the Republicans won it back in last year's election, new Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah said.

"I'm particularly pleased to pick up where we left off back then," Hatch said Wednesday.

But Democrats said that packing the hearing with three Appeals Court nominees makes it difficult to question them properly, especially Sutton. "There is just a tremendous rush to judgment on this nominee here," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Groups have complained that Sutton constantly attempts to limit federal civil rights protections and gut or weaken protections for state employees with disabilities and older workers.

"This is a nomination that deserves serious scrutiny, which ought to be considered as the only circuit court nominee at this hearing," argued Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Committee.

The Columbus, Ohio, lawyer argued successfully in a Supreme Court case in 2000 that Congress exceeded its authority by permitting state workers to sue their states under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Sutton, as well as Cook, wants to serve on the 6th Circuit court in Cincinnati, which covers federal appeals from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan. The District of Columbia Circuit court handles most federal cases in the nation's capital.

"We don't want to in any way be painted as saying he's prejudiced against people with disabilities," said Jim Ward, coordinator of ADA Watch, a coalition of disabled-rights groups on Tuesday. "It's an ideology he represents."

So many disabled persons showed up that the committee stopped the hearing to move to a larger room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building to accommodate everyone.

During her tenure on the Ohio Supreme Court, Cook has won accolades from conservatives for stances on tort reform and education law. She ruled in 1996 that a blind person applying to medical school was not considered disabled under the laws of the state of Ohio.

Republicans contend all three nominees are eminently qualified.

"Roberts is rated as one of the two top appellate lawyers in the country, and that comes straight from Supreme Court judges. He's simply without peer. Sutton is in the top 10," Hatch said. "They should not be judged for the fact that they represented clients whom the Democrats disagree with.

"Deborah Cook is a terrific Supreme Court justice in Ohio," he said. "The only thing you could hold against the three of them is … that they are more conservative than the Democrats would like."

Unlike last year, when two judicial nominees were voted down in the Democratic-controlled committee, one of whom had two hearings before a vote, Hatch plans to push nominees quickly to the Senate floor, where Republicans hold a two-vote advantage. Ten Republicans and nine Democrats are on the committee.

"They've been sitting there for almost two years," Hatch said. "All I'm asking for is to have votes on them."