WASHINGTON -- President Bush is expected to quickly revive his attempt to fill
the federal bench with conservatives, a prospect that already has energized liberal
advocacy groups to mobilize for a showdown in a new, GOP-controlled Senate.
Long frustrated by Democrats who have blocked some of his judicial nominees,
Bush recently declared a "vacancy crisis" and called on voters to elect a GOP
Senate -- a wish that came true Tuesday.
White House aides on Wednesday indicated that Bush could quickly submit new
judicial nominations, possibly including several who were rejected by the Democratic-
controlled Judiciary Committee.
"Even in a Democrat-controlled Senate, there were enough Democrats to confirm
the president's judges; but the process was used to keep them bottled up and killed
in committee," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "I think those
days may be over."
He declined to discuss individual prospective nominees, citing a longtime White
House policy of not discussing personnel matters prematurely.
But legal sources mentioned several possibilities, including Texas Supreme
Court Justice Priscilla Owen and Charles W. Pickering, a Mississippi jurist. Both
nominees to the New Orleans-based U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals were rejected
by the judiciary panel earlier this year.
Although Democrats will still be able to resort to tactics such as the filibuster
to try to block Bush's judicial picks, their minority status will make the odds
of success that much longer.
"I'm convinced that the next two years will determine what the law of the land
will be for several decades. There's that much at stake," said Ralph Neas, president
of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group based here.
For such groups, the worst-case scenario will be if vacancies on the high court
arise, because they fear Bush will appoint conservatives in the mold of Justices
Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. "If the Scalia-Thomas court had one or two
more like them, more than 100 Supreme Court precedents would be overturned," Neas
Several justices, including Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, are rumored
to have postponed their retirements until the political climate becomes more favorable
for their successors to be confirmed.
And now, with Republicans soon to control the Senate, that prospect looms,
said Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action
"The implications are pretty serious," she said.
"The president has made no secret of the fact that one of his goals in campaigning
for Republican anti-choice senators around the country was to gain control of
the Judiciary Committee so that he could succeed in appointing conservative judicial
activists -- from the Supreme Court to the district courts."
Environmentalists also were alarmed by the potential of a GOP Senate's predisposition
toward Bush's nominees.
"We also have concerns with people already on the courts who have extreme views
that threaten basic protections for the environment and public health," said Glenn
Sugameli, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm.
Conservative activists, however, believe that the court needs more jurists
like Scalia and Thomas who would uphold their beliefs opposing abortion and freeing
businesses from environmental constraints.
Among the groups that hailed a GOP takeover of the Senate were the Family Research
Council and the Concerned Women for America, two conservative activist organizations.
Genevieve Wood, a spokeswoman for the council, said the organization would
welcome the renominations of such judges as Pickering and Owen.
"There's no reason why those people can't be brought back," she said. "They
have the right credentials and solid judicial philosophies."
Concerned Women for America joined in calling on Bush to renominate those who
had been denied a full Senate vote. They include Los Angeles Superior Court Judge
Carolyn Kuhl, whose nomination to the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court
of Appeals was blocked by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.); Miguel Estrada's nomination
to the District of Columbia Circuit; Michael W. McConnell to the 10th Circuit,
based in Denver; and Dennis Shedd to the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va.
"The new Republican majority is a clear sign that the American people are frustrated
with obstruction tactics," said Thomas Jipping, senior fellow in legal studies
at Concerned Women for America. "In many ways, the election was a referendum on
the Democrats' policy of obstructionism, and they lost."
A ranking administration lawyer said the fact that the judiciary panel will
now be headed by a Republican "will change the whole world for people like Kuhl"
and others who have not been able to get hearings because of Democratic opposition.
In recent weeks, Bush has increasingly vented his frustration at Senate Democrats
for blocking his nominations.
During a campaign appearance in Jackson, Miss., for Republican Rep. Charles
W. "Chip" Pickering of Mississippi, Bush raged at the treatment of the candidate's
father, Charles Pickering. "The people who control the Senate maligned this good
man's character.... We need to change the United States Senate so that we end
this kind of politics on the judiciary and allow good people ... to serve our
nation," he said.
And just six days before the midterm elections, Bush proposed overhauling the
judicial nomination process, setting specific deadlines for the Senate to act
on each nomination -- a proposal widely seen by Democrats as politically motivated.
Bush also warned that 9% of all federal judgeships are vacant, with a 17% vacancy
rate at the 12 regional courts of appeals and a one-third vacancy rate on the
District of Columbia's Court of Appeals, which handles many constitutional and
far-reaching regulatory issues.
Democrats reject Bush's criticism that they have been slow to act on his judicial
nominations, noting that the Judiciary Committee has voted on 100 such nominees,
approving 98 in the 15 months since Democrats took control of the Senate. In any
case, Republicans such as Senate GOP leader Trent Lott of Mississippi are eagerly
anticipating the prospect of confirming Bush's judicial nominees -- a development
that did not escape White House notice.
"Now that control of the Senate has switched, I think it is far more likely
that many of these good, bipartisan names will be able to move forward," Fleischer
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who soon must turn over the Judiciary Committee's
chairmanship to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), vowed to fight on.
Chen reported from Washington and Weinstein from Los Angeles.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times