WASHINGTON – They have been called a "family of seven judicial fanatics." Also "radical," "corporate stooges," the "most extreme of the extreme."
The seven men and women whose judicial nominations are at the center of Washington's (search) filibuster fight have been packaged as all-American success stories: a sharecropper's daughter, a senator's son, able jurists who can find time to teach Sunday school and clean up national parks.
Somewhere, behind all the labels, beyond the caricatures for good and ill, there are seven people whose judicial futures hinge on far more than competence.
Their nominations, in limbo for years, are intertwined with positioning over future vacancies on the Supreme Court (search) and political payback for nominees whose upward paths were blocked in the past.
Plenty of other nominees have been here before, transformed into symbols in larger Washington battles for advantage. Many have experienced the frustration of having to remain largely silent throughout the brouhaha.
By tradition, judicial nominees in particular are expected to keep mum about their job qualifications except during their confirmation hearings.
In 1993, Lani Guinier (search) was branded the "quota queen" by a conservative critic just one day after President Clinton nominated her to be civil rights chief in the Justice Department. The label stuck.
Advised by the White House to keep quiet while opponents kept up a steady stream of criticism, "I was simply remade," Guinier wrote in her memoir, "Lift Every Voice."
"An elite group of opinion molders depersonalized and demonized me," she wrote. "With access to my real ideas withheld, my words and most especially my voice were suppressed." Clinton withdrew her nomination before she ever had a hearing.
Robert Bork, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was rejected in 1987 when he was labeled an extremist, was transformed into a verb.
"To Bork," said former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., "meant the relentless effort by interest groups to wage a political campaign against a nominee, creating a grotesque image of the person in order to build public pressure by alarmed constituents."
Looking back on the fight over his nomination, Bork a few days ago recalled the sting he felt when then-Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that "you can walk down any street and find women who are worried" about Bork's position on privacy rights.
"This business about women being afraid of me and so forth was just preposterous," Bork said.
As for the current nomination battle, Bork said, "I think it's nastier than it's ever been probably. A lot of people say it started with me, but I think it's grown increasingly nasty. I was in town when Nixon was going down. Oddly enough, the town was less bitter then than it is now."
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said Guinier and Bork became "convenient placeholders for wider political controversy." That is the case this time, too, he said.
"These people have entered the dangerous realm of symbolism," Turley said. "Some of these nominees appear almost to have been selected at random."
The seven at the center of today's storm are appeals court nominees whom the Democrats rejected during President Bush's first term and whose names Bush resubmitted to the Senate this year.
They include "the Michigan three." Their nominations to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have been held up by Michigan's two Democratic senators largely because Republicans would not allow even hearings on Clinton's nominees for the same court.
Democrats have more substantive problems with one of them, Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Henry Saad, and want to swap him for a different nominee from the state.
But the other two from Michigan, U.S. District Judge David McKeague and state Appeals Court Judge Richard Griffin, the son of former U.S. Sen. Robert Griffin, appear simply to have been nominated in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Saad has been in limbo for 13 years. He was first nominated to the 6th Circuit by the first President Bush.
The other four appeals judges renominated by Bush have been cast by Democrats as conservative ideologues with extreme views on issues including homosexuality, abortion, affirmative action, labor rights and environmental standards.
These four have attracted the most vitriol, perhaps none so much as Janice Rogers Brown. The daughter of an Alabama sharecropper, Brown sits on the California Supreme Court. She has been nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Even Democrats recoiled at a cartoon circulating on the Internet that seems to exploit her race. In it, Bush refers to Brown as "Clarence" as he introduces her to prominent blacks in his administration, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
"People have said to me, 'Well, you know, it's not personal, it's just politics,"' Brown said at her confirmation hearing. "I just want to say to you that it is personal, it's very personal to the nominees and the people who care about them."
Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, criticized as an ultraconservative who is anti-abortion and pro-business, finally got her chance to speak at a hearing in 2002, a year after she was nominated.
She told the Senate Judiciary Committee: "The picture that some special interest groups have painted of me is wrong, and I want to set the record straight."
The other two retread nominees who remain in what supporters call "nomination purgatory" are William G. Myers III, a former solicitor of the Interior Department named to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and William Pryor Jr., picked for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Pryor, a former Alabama attorney general, is the only one of the seven who actually has had a chance to get to work on the federal appellate bench. Bush gave him a temporary recess appointment last year while the Senate was on a holiday break.