WASHINGTON – The Senate on Wednesday confirmed California judge Janice Rogers Brown (search) for the federal appeals court, ending a two-year battle filled with accusations of racism and sexism and shadowed by a dispute over Democratic blocking tactics.
Senators quickly followed by ending another long-term filibuster, clearing the way for a vote Thursday on former Alabama Attorney General William Pryor (search) as outlined in an agreement last month that averted a showdown that could have brought Senate action to a halt.
After giving Pryor a final vote and confirming two Michigan nominees to other appeals court posts, senators plan to leave President Bush's other controversial nominees dangling, moving on to other matters after devoting a month to historic but exhausting debate over judges.
President Bush commended the Senate for voting to confirm Brown. "During her tenure on the California Supreme Court and California Court of Appeal, Justice Brown has distinguished herself as a brilliant and fair-minded jurist who is committed to the rule of law," Bush said in a statement.
The Senate voted 56-43 to confirm Brown to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and 67-32 to end the filibuster of Pryor's nomination to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — the last of the three nominees Democrats agreed to clear in exchange for Republicans not banning judicial filibusters.
As a bonus, the Senate will confirm on Thursday Michigan nominees David McKeague and Richard Griffin, nominated to the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati, said Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn.
While those two weren't part of the deal to avoid a fight over judicial filibusters, Democrats withdrew their objections to their confirmation during the back-and-forth negotiations.
By clearing the filibusters of Brown, Pryor and the now-confirmed U.S. Appeals Court Judge Priscilla Owen (search), the Senate has taken care of the first part of the Senate agreement.
Seven Democrats and seven Republicans signed the pact last month pledging not to filibuster judicial nominees except in extraordinary circumstances. At the same time, they agreed to oppose attempts by GOP leaders to change filibuster procedures.
The third prong in the agreement was to end the filibusters of Owen, Brown and Pryor, virtually guaranteeing their confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate.
It takes 60 votes to bypass a filibuster. In July 2003, Republicans were able to get only 53 votes for the state attorney general. In November 2003, they were able to get 51 votes for Pryor and 53 votes for Brown. The two have been stuck since then.
The Senate is anxious to move on to considering energy legislation and spending bills instead of taking up Bush's other appellate nominees including Henry Saad, William Myers, William Haynes and Brett Kavanaugh.
Those nominees were not guaranteed confirmation votes in the centrist agreement, and Democrats are expected to try and block all of them.
Frist said Tuesday he wasn't shirking a fight over those nominations. "As they come out of committee, we're going to bring them to the floor," he said.
But Myers' nomination already is pending in the full Senate, and the others have yet to get a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. North Carolina judge Terrence Boyle is the only name expected to be voted on by the committee on Thursday.
Overshadowing everything is a potential vacancy on the Supreme Court. The most likely for retirement this summer is 80-year-old Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who has cancer. The Senate then would have to debate Bush's choice for that court, pushing other nominees even further back in the queue.
Democrats have been arguing that the Republican-controlled Senate has spent too much time on Bush's judicial picks and not enough on the country's other priorities. "We've spent endless hours, endless days, too many weeks debating radical judges and Republican attempts to abuse power," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
But Brown's supporters said her confirmation to the D.C. circuit was long overdue.
"She does possess outstanding qualifications to have first earned the nomination from our distinguished president and secondly, to have earned the support of this body in the advise and consent role," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., one of the centrists who forged the filibuster compromise.
Brown's supporters said critics were concerned about a conservative black woman getting a seat of power inside the federal judiciary. Brown becomes the second black woman on the D.C. court, which decides important government cases involving separation of powers and the authority of federal agencies.
Democrats have been blocking Brown because they see her as a conservative judicial activist who ignores the law in favor of her own political views. They are critical of her record as a jurist who supported limits on abortion rights and corporate liability and opposed affirmative action.
Pryor was given a temporary appointment to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals by Bush after being blocked by Democrats. That appointment should be allowed to expire at the end of the year, instead of confirming him for a lifetime position, said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
A confirmation vote is expected for Pryor on Thursday, but Kennedy said Democrats would have plenty to say before that vote.
"We are going to be spending days to make sure the American people understand and know what Mr. Pryor said about the Americans with Disabilities Act, let alone what you said about voting rights, let alone when he said about family and medical leave," Kennedy said.