One Man's Debt Sparks Judiciary Fight

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Anyone who stopped by Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Thomas Griffith (search) might have thought that the fate of the nation's second-highest court hinged on whether Griffith paid his annual dues as a member of the District of Columbia bar.

Griffith failed to pay his bar dues in Washington, D.C. The infraction followed him to Utah, where it disqualified him from admission to that state's bar. He served as general counsel to Brigham Young University (search) for five years, but never tried to take the Utah bar exam.

"The unauthorized practice of law is not a technicality like forgetting to pay your bar dues. In fact, in some states it's a crime," Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy (search), ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Griffith during his confirmation hearing.

Griffith, who was nominated by President Bush to serve on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a stepping stone to the U.S. Supreme Court, owned up to his error.

"I made a mistake. I want to make it clear it was my mistake and no one else's mistake," he said.

Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., tried to take the matter seriously, but left plenty of room to indicate that perhaps he didn't think it was a disqualifier for the appeals court.

"Did you fail to pay those bar dues willfully? ... Try to save all that money, Mr. Griffith?" Specter asked.

Legal analyst Jonathan Turley told FOX News that, from his perspective, the dispute emphasized partisanship over the candidate's qualifications.

"It's pretty shallow water and once you start seeing hearings debating when someone paid their bar dues, you realize the hearing has gone on a bit too long," Turley said.

He added that lawyers routinely fail to pay their bar dues. Records indicate that every year, more than 3,000 lawyers and sitting judges in Washington, D.C., are administratively suspended for doing the same thing.

"You can go out on K Street, a block from here, throw a stick and hit three lawyers that have their dues in arrears," he said.

Griffith's poorly attended hearing, however, focused on little else.

"This is a conscious and continuing disregard of basic legal obligations, it's not consistent with the respect for law we should demand for lifetime appointments," Leahy said.

Griffith is another of the 20 judicial nominees Bush has re-nominated. He was first selected in May and hasn't faced a Democratic filibuster.

Ten other Bush nominees, including more controversial Bush nominees Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor, have not been voted down. They have been unable to secure the 60 votes required to break the logjam, and their fates remain in limbo.

"Democrats remain firm with sticking with judges that have already been voted down. They're wasting their time," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said.

Republicans are considering changing Senate rules to abolish judicial filibusters, but no moves will be made until next month, at the earliest.

Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Major Garrett.