WASHINGTON — President Bush on Wednesday escalated his defense of federal appeals court nominee Charles W. Pickering Sr., accusing Senate Democrats who appear ready to derail the appointment of opposing Pickering for purely partisan reasons.
Pickering, a federal district court judge in Mississippi, is expected to be the first judicial nominee of the Bush White House rejected by the Senate Democrats. The Senate Judiciary Committee could vote as early as today on his nomination to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the nation's second highest court.
However, Wednesday night Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, ranking Republican on the committee, said he would likely invoke his right to obtain an automatic one-week delay. Hatch said that would give Republicans more time to try to convince Democrats that Pickering "is not being treated fairly" and to support him.
The battle reflects a continuation of the acrimony over court nominees that has marked recent administrations, both Republican and Democratic. It also foreshadows the political war widely seen as inevitable if Bush is called upon to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court and selects a conservative candidate.
"I do think it's a warmup for the Supreme Court," said C. Boyden Gray, who as White House counsel oversaw judicial nominations during the administration of Bush's father. Those included the controversial pick of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
Critics of the Pickering nomination argue that he is a conservative ideologue whose decisions have been reversed because they violated long-established legal precedent. (Pickering has served on the federal bench since Bush's father selected him in 1990.)
Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), a member of the Senate Judiciary panel, questioned Pickering sharply on his adherence to judicial ethics in a civil rights case, suggesting he sought to lessen the sentence for a man convicted in a cross-burning case.
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Julian Bond, the chairman of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, has accused Pickering of "perpetuating voting discrimination against black voters."
Pickering also has been attacked for a law review article he wrote as a student in 1959 that critics say urged strengthening the Mississippi law against mixed-race marriages.
Pickering's supporters call attention to the approval he has received from the American Bar Assn., which gave him its highest rating, "well-qualified," as evidence of his suitability for a seat on the 5th Circuit Court.
Bush on Wednesday sought to use the prestige of his office to press the case for Pickering. He invited Pickering, the nominee's son, who is a Republican House member from Mississippi, and several Democratic supporters, including civil rights leader Charles Evers, to the Oval Office.
Bush said Pickering "respects the rights of all citizens" and cited the support of, among others, Frank Hunger, a native of Mississippi who is former Vice President Al Gore's brother-in-law.
Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, said Pickering's critics were playing "the race card." Asked to comment on the questions raised about Pickering's past positions on race, Evers said, "Whatever he was then, he's not that now."
Also Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer questioned the appropriateness of criticizing Pickering for the 1959 article. "If actions taken by people 40 years ago were the criteria, there would be some senators who were voting on this nomination whose very history would come into play," Fleischer said. "So I think what you've seen is a nation that has changed and a region that has changed."
He would not specify any senator whose record might be challenged.
Across the ideological spectrum of activists involved in judicial fights over the last 20 years, there was agreement that Pickering is caught in a fight that is likely the first such battle of the Bush administration.
Bush suggested that the conflict was also being played out over the nomination of Miguel Estrada, his choice for a vacancy on the Circuit Court in Washington.
"They're playing too much politics in the United States Senate on our judge nominees," Bush said in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
At the Oval Office event with Pickering, Bush said of the Senate: "They're holding this man's nomination up for political purposes. It's not fair, and it's not right."
The full Senate could vote on the nomination even if Pickering is rejected by the Judiciary Committee. But Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said Wednesday that, out of respect for the panel and Senate precedent, he would not bring the nomination to the Senate floor for a vote. This would effectively kill it.
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