WASHINGTON – Minority members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are prepared to "express their concerns" Thursday about President Bush's decision to recess appoint Charles Pickering (search) to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Democratic sources on the committee told Fox News.
Even as Democrats prepare to cooperate on the Senate floor and decline to filibuster the long-awaited omnibus spending bill, four Democrats on the panel are planning to bring up the issue of Pickering's appointment at the top of a hearing to confirm several non-controversial Bush nominees, the sources said.
Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking member of the panel; Dick Durbin of Illinois; Dianne Feinstein of California and possibly Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts are all expected to make opposing statements, said the sources.
Last Friday afternoon, Bush announced that he was making a recess appointment (search) for Pickering, a Mississippi District Court judge who was first nominated to the appeals court more than two years ago. A recess appointment gives the president the authority to bypass the Senate to place candidates in posts that require Senate approval. The appointment lasts until the next Congress convenes, in this case until January 2005.
Democrats had thwarted Pickering's nomination twice -- first on a party-line vote in the Judiciary Committee when they were the majority in 2001. When Democrats lost the majority in 2003, the new GOP majority on the Judiciary Committee voted on another party-line vote to pass Pickering through to the Senate for a full vote. Democrats then led a filibuster (search) of Pickering as well as three other Bush nominees.
Democrats portray Pickering as racist, unfair in his employment discrimination rulings and willing to rewrite abortion access laws.
"As the New Year began, many of us had hoped the president would adopt a more bipartisan approach in his selection of judges. Instead, this recess appointment is a finger in the eye to all those seeking fairness and bipartisanship in the judicial nominations process," Sen. Charles Schumer, who led opposition to Pickering, said in a written statement on Friday.
"I questioned Judge Pickering at his hearing, I reviewed his record, and I know Charles Pickering does not belong on the U.S. Court of Appeals," said Sen. John Edwards, a presidential candidate. "This is a judge who regularly put his personal views above the law in civil rights cases, a judge who violated judicial ethics in order to secure a lower sentence for someone who burned a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple."
Bush is trying to "pack the courts with right-wing ideologues," said Sen. Tom Daschle in a story posted on Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal Online. The Senate minority leader also denounced the president for exploiting a "procedural tactic."
According to reports about the 1994 case to which Edwards refers, and which has raised the most vocal opposition to Pickering, the judge asked the Justice Department for a clarification of federal mandatory minimum laws that could apply to the case of a man who was convicted of burning a cross on the lawn of a mixed-race couple. Civil Rights Division prosecutors told Pickering they weren't demanding the defendant be given a higher minimum sentence so Pickering sentenced the man to two years and three months in jail and advised him to spend his time there reading up on "maintaining good race relations and how that can be done."
Pickering has denied charges that he is racist and earned the support of the head of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus (search) and James Charles Evers, brother of the slain civil rights leader.
Thursday's hearing, the first since Pickering was installed on the appeals court, will also be an opportunity for lawmakers to hear testimony from four nominees -- Raymond Gruender, up for a seat on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals; Ricardo Martinez, nominated as a district judge for the Western District of Washington; Gene Pratter for a district judge seat in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania; and Neil Vincent Wake to be U.S. district judge for the District of Arizona. None is expected to raise Democratic opposition.
Fox News' Julie Asher and Sharon Kehnemui contributed to this report.