WASHINGTON – Black lawmakers on Thursday reinvigorated their fight against President Bush’s judicial nominees, accusing the president's choices of attempting to turn back the clock on civil rights achievements over the last 50 years.
"We share the concern of many civil rights and civil liberties organizations — as well as the concerns of all people of good will — that many of the president’s judicial nominees have failed to demonstrate support for our civil rights," Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters.
Of utmost concern to black lawmakers is Bush’s re-nomination of U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering to the 5th Circuit Courts of Appeals.
Pickering was rejected by the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee last March after being accused of racial insensitivity despite backing from the brother of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
Pickering, and Priscilla Owen of Texas, who was also rejected by the committee, are expected to get a more favorable reception in front of the Republican-led panel.
Bush returned their nominations to the Senate Tuesday along with 28 other nominees who were not considered by the Senate last year.
"We are deeply concerned that Judge Pickering’s record reflects a continuing judicial insensitivity — even hostility — toward key principles and remedies that safeguard the civil rights of all Americans," Cummings said.
"The federal courts are the last refuge for justice for minorities and for those who suffer from discrimination in America," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. "We need to have judges who will follow and interpret the law without biased predispositions that will result in a backward step for justice in America."
Lee, whose district is under the jurisdiction of the 5th Circuit, pointed out to reporters that minorities are most affected by the most controversial cases surrounding issues such as the death penalty and police brutality.
"We must have judges that understand the law," she said.
Although the 39-member caucus has not limited its concerns to Pickering, Cummings said all nominees will be given fair treatment during confirmation hearings and promised to take another look at Owens before the CBC offers any recommendations to Senate lawmakers who vote on confirmation.
Race relations, particularly on Capitol Hill, have been propelled to ever-sensitive heights since Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., was quoted last month making remarks that seemed to express remorse over the loss of the country's segregationist past.
President Bush quickly distanced himself from Lott, calling his remarks offensive and saying in a speech to a racially mixed audience that "every day that our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals."
Lawmakers say they are confounded by the president's decision to re-nominate Pickering, whose objectionable nomination centered on his recommendation to reduce the sentence of a man convicted of burning a cross on the front lawn of a mixed-race married couple.
Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York, both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that they would filibuster the Pickering confirmation. Schumer said Bush’s pick exemplifies how little the White House cares about racial matters in this country.
"When it comes to civil rights, this administration has been talking a good game, but has consistently ignored the need to move civil rights and racial issues forward," Schumer said.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. has promised a "rich debate" over the nominee choices on the Senate floor.
But the White House is quick to come to Pickering’s defense.
"This has nothing, nothing to do with race and everything to do with the ideology of a few liberal Democrats who oppose a man who has bipartisan support," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
CBC members said that they were pleased with the remarks Bush made during the Lott debacle, but accused him of hypocrisy for criticizing Lott and then pushing the nomination of someone just as mired in racial controversies.
"The ugly stain from Sen. Trent Lott’s praise of a segregationist’s platform has not yet faded from our nation’s fabric, and yet President Bush seeks to re-nominate to the federal bench a divisive figure who represents much of what America has forcefully rejected, and whose candidacy the Senate rejected last term" Lee said.
Although the GOP, in the aftermath of the Lott scandal, promised to do more to reach out to minorities who think that party isn’t for them, the caucus said no action has been taken.
The CBC wants Bush to restore the pre-nomination role of the America Bar Association and to seek nominees "who are not right-wing ideologues."
The ABA has traditionally reviewed potential nominees and submitted ratings to the White House to help make final selections. In 2001, Bush decided to deny the ABA a role in advising the White House on its nominees, saying the ABA supported nominees who are increasingly liberal.
"As a nation, we must never forget that federal judicial nominees, once confirmed by the Senate, serve for life," Cummings said. "Because the very future of what our nation stands for is at stake, we urge the president to choose a course of action that is grounded in genuine bipartisan consultation."