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Nominee Motivates Foes, Allies

A conservative L.A. Superior Court judge in line to sit on the Court of Appeals finds herself the latest lightning rod in the federal judicial war.

May 08, 2003|David G. Savage and Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As a 29-year-old lawyer in the Reagan administration, Carolyn B. Kuhl was one of the young conservatives determined to shift the law to the right.

She called for the Justice Department to lead an attack on the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade ruling that legalized abortion. She also helped persuade President Reagan's attorney general to change sides and support a restored tax exemption for Bob Jones University and other racially discriminatory private schools.

Now, a wide array of civil rights, environmental, feminist and labor organizations is deeply opposed to Kuhl's nomination to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviews cases from nine Western states, including California.

Since returning to Los Angeles in 1986, she has won many admirers as a lawyer and, more recently, as a Superior Court judge. She has been endorsed by more than 100 local judges -- Democrats as well as Republicans -- and by the former president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund for a seat on the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco.

Listening to Kuhl's supporters and detractors, the chasm is so great it is hard to imagine they are talking about the same person.

In the latest battle in the partisan war over judges, a deeply split Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote today on whether Kuhl, 50, merits a lifetime seat on the 9th Circuit.

She is likely to narrowly win approval, because the panel has 10 Republicans and nine Democrats.

Until recently, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had been officially undecided. But on Wednesday, her spokesman said she would oppose the nomination -- a decision that heartened liberal activists who say Kuhl may still be blocked on the Senate floor.

Both sides in the warring over President Bush's judicial nominees said this week that they see an escalation in the battle.

Never before, Republicans say, has a minority used the Senate's rules to filibuster a lower-court judge.

But Kuhl's critics emphasized that it would be highly unusual for the Senate to even hold a vote on -- much less confirm -- a nominee who is opposed by both of her home-state senators.

The Democrats have blocked a final Senate vote on two prospective Circuit Court judges, Washington attorney Miguel Estrada and Texas state Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen.

Filibustering judges is not entirely new; since Republicans used the filibuster in the summer of 1968 to prevent a vote on Justice Abe Fortas, President Lyndon B. Johnson's choice to become chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Nonetheless, angry Republican senators said this week the confirmation process is "broken."

Some were reportedly considering using a parliamentary maneuver to change the Senate rules and clear the way for a majority vote on Estrada and Owen.

Nominees' Progress

Both nominees have the support of more than 50 senators, but not the 60 votes that are required under the Senate rules to end debate.

For their part, Democrats are angered that Kuhl's nomination is moving forward.

Under the Judiciary Committee's rules, the president's proposed judges needed a signed "blue slip" signaling the approval of both home-state senators.

In the late 1990s, Republican former Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Phil Gramm of Texas refused to sign off on President Clinton's nominees to the appeals court in their region. Their refusal killed the nominations.

Two years ago, when Bush nominated Kuhl for the 9th Circuit, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) refused to give her approval. She called Kuhl "anti-choice" and "anti-civil rights."

But when the Republicans retook control of the Senate and the Judiciary Committee this year, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said he would no longer allow one home-state senator to block action on a Bush nominee.

The Democrats also complained this week about "GOP whining" over judges. They noted that despite the well-publicized filibusters, 121 of Bush's judges have won confirmation in the first two years and three months of his administration.

By that standard, his predecessors did not fare as well. President Clinton and the elder President Bush won approval of about 45 judges a year.

The Democrats also say the number of vacancies on the bench is the lowest in 13 years.

The 9th Circuit, with an allotment of 28 judges, has three vacancies.

Liberal activists remain determined to stop Kuhl from winning one, and they are urging Democrats to block a final vote on her nomination.

Kuhl has "repeatedly demonstrated a deep-seated hostility to the rights of women and minorities," says Nan Aron, executive director of the liberal Alliance for Justice.

The fact that Feinstein has joined Boxer in opposing the nomination means that there "absolutely is the possibility of a filibuster," Aron said Wednesday night.

Academic Record

Kuhl, who was raised in St. Louis, was a top student at Princeton and then at Duke Law School, earning a clerkship with then-9th Circuit Judge Anthony M. Kennedy, who is now a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

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