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Senate Confirms 3 of Bush's Judicial Nominees

Courts: Choice for 4th Circuit--named to the post temporarily by Clinton--is the bench's first black member.

July 21, 2001|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush won Senate confirmation of his first judges Friday, but the victory was celebrated more by liberal activists and Democrats than by the administration's conservative supporters.

Judge Roger Gregory, an African American lawyer from Richmond, Va., won Senate approval to a permanent judgeship on the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, a year after President Clinton nominated him to the same post.

The Senate also confirmed two trial court judges from Montana: Sam Haddon and Richard Cebull.

Despite Friday's vote, 109 vacancies remain on the federal bench, and the Senate is not expected to vote on more of Bush's court nominees until the fall.

Administration officials say they are frustrated at the slow pace of confirmations, and conservative activist Tom Jipping accused the Democrats of following "an aggressive obstructionist strategy."

"I hope the Democrats don't think they are fooling anyone with this [vote]. It shows only that they will not fight a Clinton nominee who is black," said Jipping, a lawyer for the Free Congress Foundation.

Meanwhile, the liberal Alliance for Justice said it was pleased with Gregory's confirmation to the conservative appeals court, which had been all white.

"This sends the right signal, that if you nominate judges who are not out of step with the concerns of average Americans, they will be confirmed," said Marcia Kuntz, who heads the alliance's judicial selection project.

Gregory won confirmation on a 94-1 vote, with only Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republican leader, voting no.

But the lopsided approval of Gregory as the first Bush judge masks an ongoing political struggle and makes for a strange twist in the political battles over the courts.

Throughout Clinton's term, he tried to add the first black jurist to the 15-member 4th Circuit Court. Its region, which extends from Maryland to South Carolina, has the highest percentage of African Americans of any federal circuit, yet it was the only appeals court that had never had a minority judge.

Four of its judgeships were authorized to be filled by North Carolinians, but Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) vetoed three of Clinton's black nominees. They were denied hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, leaving North Carolina with no representation on the appeals court.

With his time in the White House running out, Clinton last year looked to Virginia. Gregory had been a protege of former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, and he was supported by the state's two U.S. senators, including Republican John W. Warner.

Despite that support, the Republican-controlled Senate took no action on Gregory's nomination last year.

Undaunted, Clinton, while the Senate was in recess, appointed Gregory to the appeals court for a one-year term.

When Bush moved into the White House, he decided in a bipartisan gesture to renominate Gregory in his first batch of court picks. And when the Democrats retook control the Senate in May, they decided to move first on Gregory.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who became chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the Bush White House and the Senate Republicans deserve much of the blame for the slow start on approving judges.

Bush's lawyers changed the long-standing practice of having the American Bar Assn. conduct a semiofficial review of judicial candidates before they were nominated. But Senate Democrats insisted on those reviews, which were done after the nominations were announced.

In June, after losing control of the Senate, the Republicans sought new rules that would clear the way for a full Senate vote on all nominations. The Democrats refused, saying they would follow the same rules the Republicans used when they were in the majority.

Leahy said again Friday that he has no intention of blocking Bush's judicial nominees but that those with bipartisan support will move first.

"The Senate can act promptly on consensus nominees," Leahy said. If presidential nominees are supported by home-state Democrats as well as by Republicans, they are likely to win quick approval, he said.

Typically, new administrations get off to a slow start in filling court vacancies, but Bush's aides say the Democrats are stalling for no good reason.

"This is totally unprecedented, and there is a high level of irritation over it," said one administration official who asked not to be named.

Bush's advisors say Clinton judges won Senate confirmation, on average, 81 days after they were nominated. This was so, they said, despite yearlong delays for several nominees.

They say the Senate is behind schedule on their nominees already, as only three judges have been approved in the 72 days since Bush sent his first nominees to Capitol Hill.

But David Carle, a spokesman for Leahy, said those numbers ignore that the first year of an administration is always slow going.

"Clinton had only four appeals court judges confirmed in his first year, and Bush senior had only five," he said.

Next week, the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on an appeals court nominee from Nebraska, but the Senate is expected to recess in the first week of August.

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