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Judicial Nominee to Face Senate Panel Again

William G. Myers III, ex-Interior solicitor, is opposed by Indian and environmental groups.

March 01, 2005|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — William G. Myers III, who served for two years as the Interior Department's top lawyer, is to appear today before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which for the second time in two years will consider whether he should be confirmed as a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Myers, an Idaho lawyer and a longtime lobbyist for mining and cattle companies, is among 10 judicial candidates whose nominations were blocked by Senate Democrats last year but were resubmitted by President Bush this month. His is the first of the nominations to be considered again by the committee because Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the committee chairman, believes Myers has the best chance for confirmation.

But Myers' nomination is again being opposed by formidable foes, including Native American and environmental groups.

At a news conference Monday, Tex G. Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, urged the Senate to reject Myers.

Myers' "shameless and blatant disrespect for federal laws protecting American Indian sacred sites and his blatant disregard for the government-to-government consultation process" the Interior Department is supposed to engage in with tribes "has forced us to take an unprecedented stand," Hall said. The opposition to the nomination, Hall noted, marked the first time the group had taken a position against a judicial appointment.

"He is a threat to our culture," said Hall, whose organization represents more than 250 tribes.

As the Interior Department's solicitor -- the top legal job -- from July 2001 to October 2003, "Myers was very lopsided in his favoritism for the mining interests.... He was unable to be impartial," Hall said.

Myers' nomination is also opposed by most major environmental organizations in the country -- including the National Wildlife Federation, which also participated in Monday's news conference -- as well as many civil rights, labor and women's groups.

Responding to comments from the news conference, Justice Department spokesman John Nowacki said Monday that Myers was "a well-qualified nominee whose record and experience would be an asset on the 9th Circuit." Myers also was supported by the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., for which he served as director of federal lands in the 1990s.

"It is unfortunate that, in the past, there has been a concerted effort to keep Mr. Myers off the bench because of his experience with cattle, timber and mining groups," Jay Truitt, the group's vice president of government affairs, said in a statement Monday. "But it is Myers' knowledge of these natural resource and public lands issues that makes him such a qualified candidate."

Generally considered the most liberal appeals court in the nation, the 9th Circuit in San Francisco reviews decisions from federal trial courts in California and eight other Western states, including more significant Indian law cases than any other federal appeals court.

About 75% of the nation's tribes are within the circuit's boundaries, Hall said.

In explaining their opposition to Myers' nomination, lawyers and American Indian leaders have emphasized actions he took in several situations while Interior's top lawyer.

The most prominent involves a proposed 1,600-acre open-pit gold mine that would be adjacent to federally designated wilderness in Imperial County, Calif. The area contains 55 recorded historic properties eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as religious sites, including prayer circles, ceremonial places, shrines and petroglyphs.

A few months after Myers became Interior's top lawyer, he reversed a legal opinion by his predecessor, paving the way for Glamis Gold Ltd. of Canada to build the mine. Earlier, an independent federal agency said if the mine was built, it would be so damaging that "the Quechan tribe's ability to practice their sacred traditions as a living part of their community life would be lost."

Indian leaders also said they were troubled because Myers met with Glamis officials while preparing his opinion on the issue for Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, but did not meet with the Quechan officials, although they had requested a meeting.

Nowacki, the Justice Department spokesman, said Myers had "faithfully interpreted the law passed by Congress when he issued" his opinion to Norton.

At Monday's news conference, John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, a public interest law group, expressed dismay about Myers' actions in an ongoing lawsuit involving disbursement of royalty payments, potentially worth billions of dollars, to more than 300,000 Indians and numerous tribes for oil, grazing, drilling and logging leases on tribal land.

"As solicitor, Mr. Myers was responsible to spearhead" reports that the Interior Department had to present periodically to the judge presiding over the case, Echohawk said.

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