WASHINGTON – Mississippi judge Charles Pickering (search) on Thursday became the fourth of President Bush's judicial nominees to be filibustered by Democrats, continuing a two-year struggle tainted with religious, racial and electoral politics over the directions of the federal appellate court.
Pickering, a federal trial judge who wants a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) in New Orleans, has been waiting for more than two years for a confirmation vote in the Senate.
But Democrats -- who kept the GOP from getting the 60 votes needed Thursday to break the filibuster -- have accused him of supporting segregation as a young man, and pushing anti-abortion and anti-voting rights views as a state lawmaker.
They also said they wouldn't be able to trust Pickering to keep his conservative opinions out of his work on the federal appeals court.
"Judge Pickering's record shows a judge inserting his personal views into his judicial opinions and putting his personal preferences above the law," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (search) of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Republicans have denied the charges, saying Pickering would follow the law as written.
"He is a good, fair-minded man, and the treatment he has received by a handful of senators is a disgrace," Bush said in a statement. "He has wide bipartisan support from those who know him best."
Pickering said from his home in Herbron, Miss., that he would keep on trying for his promotion. "I am not bitter. My faith has not weakened," he said.
"What has happened to me personally is of no great importance," he said. "But what is happening to the confirmation process is tremendously important. That should be a matter of great concern for all Americans."
But Republicans were less charitable, calling the filibuster "a low point for the Senate" and a tragedy.
"It's a tragedy because a very fine man has been besmirched by phony arguments," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Republicans said Pickering testified against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1967, advocated voting rights for blacks in the 1960s and led integration efforts in the 1970s and 1980s.
His supporters charged that his nomination has become a victim of an anti-Baptist, anti-Southern prejudice among many Democrats because of his anti-abortion views. "It's all about abortion," Hatch said.
The GOP needed 60 votes to break the filibuster, but the final vote was 54-43.
"Pickering has been the victim by inaccurate race baiting and political trash talk by the news media, members of Congress and Washington's liberal elite," said Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga. "Judge Pickering's critics continue to unfairly label him a racist and segregationist. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Miller, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt. voted for Pickering, while the rest of the votes fell along party lines. Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts missed the vote.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handles appeals from Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana, and the federal judges on that circuit were known to be trailblazers on desegregation and voting rights in the past. Democrats have questioned Pickering's efforts to reduce the sentence of a man convicted of burning a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple.
"He still does not enjoy the confidence of the minority population of his own state. That, to me, is something you can't ignore," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "
Democrats said the Pickering vote could be timed for Mississippi GOP gubernatorial challenger Haley Barbour to use against Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in the state's Nov. 4 election. But Republicans said the election had nothing to do with timing of the vote.
But "it could very well have an effect on the election in our state," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. "I think people are generally mad" about Pickering's treatment.
Pickering, Texas judge Priscilla Owen, Alabama Attorney General William Pryor and Hispanic lawyer Miguel Estrada all have been filibustered by Democrats. The Republicans have yet to break a Democratic filibuster this year.
The Senate has approved 167 U.S. federal judgeships for Bush since 2001.
Pickering was the first of Bush's nominees to fall to the Democrats, who voted down his nomination last year when they controlled the Senate Judiciary Committee.