Senate Democrats Hold Up Controversial Bush Judge Nominees

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President Bush might want to consider hiring benchwarmers -- his most controversial judicial nominees may have to wait until 2002 before reaching even the first step to getting confirmed.

The hold-up is coming from the Democrat-controlled Senate, which isn't bending over backwards to let the Republican chief executive stack the third arm of the government with four people with strong views that don't gibe with their own.

Of the 64 judge nominees Bush has put forward, 17 have already been approved. And Dems say they plan to OK 30 more before the year is up. But as for Bush Appeals Court nominees Miguel Estrada, Jeff Sutton, Terrance Boyle and Michael McConnell, the calendar suddenly looks pretty packed for some Democratic senators.

"I'm trying to get the ones who are non-controversial" first, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said. "We're trying to get through as many as we can."

Republicans don't believe him. GOP senators have dropped their blockade of spending bills as a tactic for pressuring Democrats to allow more judges through. But Republicans still accuse those on the other side of the aisle of playing political games with Bush's nominations.

"I don't think we're doing the job, and I think the American people are going to suffer because of it," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and its former chairman.

"It's purely partisan politics," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., one of the leaders of the bill blockade. "Be truthful about it. They don't want conservative judges on the court."

Most of Bush's nominees are still waiting in the wings for their time before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Thirty-two are awaiting a hearing. Ten others have had hearings but no committee votes. And one other has received committee clearance but has yet to be voted on by the full Senate.

Sutton, McConnell, Boyle and Estrada were among the first 11 nominations Bush made on May 9. Along with five other judicial nominees, they have been waiting six months for Senate action.

Stop whining, the Dems say -- when President Clinton left office after eight years, 67 of his judicial nominees had never had a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Experts tend to agree.

Sheldon Goldman, a University of Massachusetts professor and author of the book, "Picking Federal Judges: Lower Court Selection From Roosevelt Through Reagan," said Leahy has done well in getting 19 judges confirmed since June.

But Goldman said that all judicial nominees, even the controversial ones, deserve a quick hearing.

"I would think a case would have to be made for having it within three months," Goldman said. "Now, of course, Sept. 11 and all that's followed have completely interrupted the whole saga, and then the anthrax cases obviously, so under these circumstances you might want to talk six months, seven months. But within a reasonable time frame, hearings should be held and the Senate Judiciary Committee should vote."

Bush's fracas-causing foursome shouldn't expect an easy time when they finally get their time in the limelight.

McConnell, nominated to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, is recognized in legal circles as especially conservative on abortion rights and church-state separation.

Sutton, a former Ohio state solicitor, for the 6th Circuit Appeals Court, is on disability-rights groups' least-liked list because he successfully argued to the Supreme Court that state employees can't use federal disability rights to collect damages for on-the-job discrimination.

Estrada, nominee to the District of Columbia Appeals Court, is a partner in the Washington firm that represented Bush at the Supreme Court during his post-election legal fight with Al Gore. Even a personal plea from the president himself isn't necessarily going to help him.

And Boyle, nominated for the 4th Circuit Appeals Court, has been part of a decade-long political tug of war. Bush's father nominated the former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms to the federal bench in 1991. Democrats blocked Boyle then, and Helms, R-N.C., subsequently retaliated by blocking all of Clinton's nominees from North Carolina.

Now North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, has yet to complete the paperwork that would allow Boyle's nomination to go to a vote.

Yet Leahy might be right to wait on nominees who might cause fights, Goldman said.

"You want to get the more confirmable people through," he said. "You don't want to gum up the works with the people who are more controversial. But they should all have hearings. Whether they have them before December or they have them early next year, they should all have hearings."