The Senate Judiciary Committee was right to reject the confirmation of Judge Charles Pickering and Justice Priscilla Owen to lifetime seats on the federal appeals courts last year, said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas.
n March 14, 2002, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected President Bush’s nomination of Mississippi federal district court judge Charles W. Pickering, Sr., championed by Senator Trent Lott, to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The Committee’s decision to reject Pickering’s lifetime elevation to the powerful Court of Appeals followed an exhaustive examination of Pickering’s record, scrutiny that produced disturbing conclusions. Pickering’s record, both before and since he became a judge, demonstrates insensitivity and hostility toward key legal principles protecting the civil and constitutional rights of minorities, women, and all Americans. As a judge, Pickering in a number of instances has allowed his own beliefs to trump his responsibility to follow the law. And his decisions as a judge have been reversed on a number of occasions by conservative appellate court judges for disregarding controlling precedent on constitutional rights and for improperly denying people access to the courts.
Why the Senate Judiciary Committee made the right decision when they rejected the confirmation of Priscilla Owen to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas said that Sen. Orrin Hatch’s recent speech on the Senate floor repeatedly denouncing People For the American Way and describing the Federalist Society as a group of lawyers concerned only with encouraging debate on legal issues was “unfortunate, unfair, and inaccurate.” Neas released a letter to Sen. Hatch as well as a recently updated copy of a People For the American Way Foundation report on the Federalist Society, which examines the group’s influence on the Bush administration’s judicial selection process.
Comparing the current situation to the prevailing practice under President Clinton makes it clear that Republicans are attempting to change the rules governing their handling of federal court nominations. In analyzing this controversy, it is important to note that unlike the blockades of four years and more produced by Senate Republicans, not a single case of Democratic abuse of the blue slip policy has been suggested. At this point, Republicans have offered no good reason to change the rules, other than their desire to push through as many right-wing judicial nominees as quickly as possible while the Senate remains in their hands. As the New York Times explained on April 27:
[T]he blue slip policy [should not be abandoned] completely and give the Republicans carte blanche to ram though ideologically driven nominees who could reshape the federal judiciary for a generation to come…[J]udicious use of the blue slip policy [can help] to secure a balanced array of nominees that includes centrists along with conservatives…
Under the current circumstances - despite the brief period in which the blue slip policy was misused to create judicial gridlock - the policy is one of the few mechanisms that can encourage leaders of both political parties to reach consensus on nominees, as occurred in the early years of the Clinton administration. The public has much at stake in this debate. With one party effectively controlling the White House and the Senate, any mechanism that contributes to “checks and balances” helps to ensure against judicial appointments that reflect a narrow, partisan ideology. In addition, there are ample signs that Democrats on the Judiciary Committee would use the blue slip policy with an appropriate degree of restraint. In a recent letter to President Bush, the nine Democrats on the committee proposed six guidelines to ensure a more productive relationship in deciding on federal court nominees. The guidelines made reasonable requests, for example, asking that the White House “give serious consideration to individuals proposed by as possible nominees” and that the administration “[c]onsult with home state senators and the Judiciary Committee … with enough time to allow senators to consider the potential nominee and provide a meaningful response to the administration before any formal clearance on the prospective nominee is initiated.” In the absence of other mechanisms, the blue slip policy currently offers the kind of leverage that can bring both sides together and force consultation to happen - thus, increasing the odds that the process produces mainstream judges to serve on our federal courts, and assuring an uneasy public that it can have confidence in the process and in the judges it produces.