WASHINGTON — President Bush's nomination of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl to the federal bench moved closer to a vote Tuesday, as some members of a congressional panel voiced support for her despite opposition from Democrats and liberal advocacy groups representing women and minorities.
Kuhl is rated "well-qualified" by the American Bar Assn. for a seat on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. But the former deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration faced strong criticism from Democrats, who pointed to her conservative record in the Justice Department and as a private-practice attorney.
While serving as a deputy attorney general, Kuhl filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion in the United States.
Earlier in her career, as special assistant to U.S. Atty. Gen. William French Smith, she fought to retain tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University in South Carolina, despite its record of religious discrimination and racial segregation.
On Tuesday, she came under intense questioning from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Republicans now command a 10-9 majority. The committee is expected to vote on her nomination this month.
When pressed by Democrats on the panel about what they characterized as her history of activism in support of conservative causes, Kuhl expressed regret in a few instances, or said she stood by the decisions of courts that have overruled her.
About her challenge to the Internal Revenue Service's decision to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University on grounds of racial discrimination, Kuhl said, "I regret taking the position that I did. I should have been defending the position of the IRS, and I was wrong because nondiscrimination should have been put first."
When asked whether she agreed with the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision in hindsight, she said, "I am not comfortable with giving my opinion with respect to any particular precedent."
Later, she said, "the positions that I've taken as an advocate I put aside when I became a judge seven years ago."
Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), questioned her on her position in a 2001 case, Sanchez-Scott vs. Alza Pharmaceuticals, in which a doctor allowed a drug-company salesman to observe a patient's breast exam without the woman's approval. Kuhl, as a Los Angeles County trial judge, ruled that the doctor could be held liable, but not the salesman. Her decision was unanimously reversed on appeal.
Other Democrats based their opposition to her nomination on a procedural objection, arguing that the hearing itself violated a time-honored rule blocking judicial nominations that are not supported by both home-state senators. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is not a Judiciary Committee member, has withheld her "blue slip", a consent form that committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) has required in the past from both home-state senators for judicial hearings to proceed.
"This is the first time that this chairman will ever have convened a hearing for a judicial nominee who did not have two positive blue slips returned to the committee," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, ranking Democrat from Vermont. "Lest some observers wrongly conclude that this sudden and orchestrated series of rules changes is 'politics as usual,' it most certainly is not."
In a statement, Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice said, "Throughout her career, [Kuhl] has worked zealously to restrict access to justice for those who need it most."
Boxer, in a statement released after Tuesday's hearing, described Kuhl, 50, as "anti-choice" and "anti-civil rights."
"When President Bush was elected, he clearly stated that he would govern from the center," Boxer said. "This nominee, however, is clearly outside of the mainstream of American values."
But fellow California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a member of the committee, has submitted the consent form for the nomination, saying she is keeping "an open mind" on Kuhl's nomination. Feinstein cited bipartisan support for Kuhl from the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., Kuhl's fellow judges on the California Superior Court and some civil rights advocates.
''I have never had more letters from sitting judges in support of a candidate than I have with respect to this judge,'' Feinstein said. "Clearly, this is a very bright woman.''
However, Feinstein challenged the judge on her stances on abortion, sexual harassment policies and corporate responsibility to the environment.
Hatch maintained that the 9th Circuit would "benefit from the confirmation of such an esteemed and experienced jurist ... whose record demonstrates her commitment to following precedent and steering clear of judicial activism. ... Kuhl has an exemplary record that includes service as both a committed advocate and an impartial jurist."
Bush nominated Kuhl in June 2001, but her nomination was blocked last year by the then-Democrat-controlled Senate.