Republican Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach asked the White House on Friday to withdraw his name from consideration for nomination to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Cox bowed out a day after Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords announced his intention to abandon the GOP, returning control of the Senate to the Democrats.
Cox's name was absent from the first round of 11 judicial nominations announced by President Bush earlier this month. His potential nomination came under fire from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) as soon as she learned of it in April. She criticized him for being too conservative and out of touch with the views of mainstream Americans.
Cox acknowledged Friday that Boxer's opposition would have scuttled his chances. Senators have been split over rules for considering judicial nominees, with Democrats insisting on approval by both senators of a nominee's home state.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had withheld support for Cox but said she wouldn't necessarily rule out voting for him.
Boxer spokesman David Sandretti said Cox's voting record "consistently undermined" abortion rights, environmental protection, consumer rights and worker rights.
After opposition to Cox surfaced, the Bush administration held back the nomination hoping that the California senators could be mollified. White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, head of the administration's judicial appointments committee, met separately with Feinstein and Boxer in recent days to discuss Cox and other nominations.
Boxer remained implacable, however, and after Jeffords abandoned the Republican Party, shifting the balance of power in the Senate, Cox's prospects dimmed further.
Cox's decision ended a month of feverish speculation over his future and that of his coastal seat, which he has held since 1988. Cox, 48, an honors graduate of Harvard Law School, holds the fifth-ranking leadership post in the House.
He declined to be interviewed Friday but said in a terse letter to Boxer that withdrawing from consideration "will permit me to redouble my efforts in Congress."
Cox is up for reelection in 2002. State law says that a special election would have to be held within three months of his confirmation as a judge.
"If the Senate confirmation vote were delayed until next year, then it is possible no special election would occur at all," Cox said in a letter to Feinstein. "As I am unwilling to leave 700,000 people unrepresented in Congress for up to a year, the prospect of . . . delay is unacceptable in my circumstances."
Two other possible judicial nominees have been similarly sidetracked. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl was also slated to be nominated to the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit, while conservative Washington lawyer Peter Keisler was an initial pick for the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Conservatives accused Democrats of forcing out qualified candidates. Thomas L. Jipping, director of the judicial selection project at the conservative Free Congress Foundation in Washington, called the tactic "an inhumane, partisan hatchet job."
"The Democrats' strategy worked out," Jipping said of Cox's withdrawal.
USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said Democrats are merely exercising the same opposition practiced by Republicans when it was President Clinton's nominees.
"I think it is appropriate for the Democrats to block those who are conservative, just as the Republicans blocked liberals for six years," Chemerinsky said. "No one would deny that Christopher Cox is very conservative."
Nan Aron of the liberal Alliance for Justice said it was no accident that Cox's departure came the day after Jeffords' defection.
Aron said Jeffords cited judicial nominations as one area of discomfort with the administration. She said Bush will have to "rethink [his] judicial selection policy of trying to tilt the bench to the right."
Jipping, Aron and Chemerinsky agreed on one thing: Kuhl's potential nomination is in danger. In particular, Chemerinsky cited the fact that Kuhl had signed a brief calling for Roe vs. Wade to be overturned when she was a Justice Department lawyer during the Reagan administration.
The 9th Circuit has jurisdiction over cases from nine Western states. The court has three vacancies and is sufficiently strapped that it frequently utilizes federal trial judges or judges from other circuits to fill out its customary three-judge panels.
The vacancies aren't the first to be stalled by partisan wrangling. Several of the 9th Circuit's recent appointments by the Clinton administration were held up by Republicans: in the case of Richard Paez, just over four years; in the case of Willie Fletcher, more than three years; and for Marsha Berzon, more than two years.