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ELECTION 2002

Liberals Bracing for Quick Judicial Action by Bush

November 07, 2002|Edwin Chen and Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writers

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 predicted.

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 League.

"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.

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