WASHINGTON – One of President Bush's appellate court nominees faced a grilling on Capitol Hill Thursday as Democratic lawmakers tried to label the Mississippi district court judge a racist.
Judge Charles "Chip" Pickering Sr., father to a Republican House representative, also was subjected to questions about whether he abided by case-law precedent, supported privacy rights and would enforce equal sentencing for convicts of different race and gender.
Opponents of the nominee, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 1991 for his district seat, pointed to Pickering's record as a Mississippi state senator in which he supported an amendment outlawing abortion except in cases of rape and risk to the mother's life.
Pickering did not address the abortion issue specifically, saying that he has never ruled on an abortion case and didn't want to jaundice future rulings, but said that regardless of his personal views, he would uphold Supreme Court rules.
"When I take an oath as a judge to uphold the Constitution of the United States that means to uphold the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, and I will do that," he said.
"I would have no choice but to uphold Roe v. Wade," he added, referring to the 1973 abortion rights case.
This is Pickering's second hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, something nearly unheard of in the confirmation process. At his first appearance before the committee last October, Democrats said hundreds of his rulings were unavailable and they reserved the right to call him back.
A Democratic aide who answered the committee phone said that another hearing may be necessary.
Pickering's critics charge him with injecting his own opinion and personal bias into his cases. They point out that 26 of his opinions were overturned by the appeals court.
"You have been reversed by the 5th Circuit at least 26 times, now either that is because you have followed your personal opinion, or you didn't follow the law, it's gonna be one or the other," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the committee.
But Pickering pointed out that's 26 cases out of 4,000, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he found Leahy's argument specious.
"That, for the uninitiated, sounds bad. I think that's unfair," Sessions said.
Supporters say Pickering, an 11-year U.S. District Court judge, has a reputation of being extremely fair in cases of segregation and civil rights. They point out that as a state prosecutor, he testified against a Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard in a 1967 criminal trial, for which he lost his next election.
Later, as chairman of the state's Republican Party, Pickering hired the first black political staffer, who was hired to go into both white and black neighborhoods for recruitment efforts.
But Democratic critics, such as Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said Pickering too often rules against African-Americans in employment discrimination cases.
"One case, after deciding about the case against the plaintiff, you went on to opine, the fact that a black employee is terminated does not automatically indicate discrimination that the civil rights was not passed to guarantee job security to those employees who do not do their job adequately," he said.
Pickering responded: "I made those comments wherein the case I thought clearly indicated there was no basis for this action, never should have been brought, and I think it is detrimental to African-Americans who have good claims," he said.
Pickering's nomination has the support of several African-Americans, including James Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. But civil rights insiders, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, admit that Pickering's nomination could be a testing ground for Senate Democrats who may try to shut down nominees who appear to have tarnished reputations.