WASHINGTON – President Bush's first slate of judicial nominees appears headed for confirmation in the divided Senate following compromises with Democrats that will delay the battle over the direction of the federal judiciary until later.
Calling for "civility and dignity," Bush on Wednesday nominated 11 lawyers, including some prominent conservatives, who were hand-picked for easy confirmation to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- the courts of last resort for most lawsuits in the country.
The nominees "will be exceptional for their humanity and their integrity," Bush said during an announcement ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Democrats appeared content with the choices after Bush withheld the planned nominations of at least four conservatives to avoid Democratic objections, and added Roger Gregory and Barrington Parker -- two blacks who had been tapped by former President Clinton.
"We are pleased that the White House has chosen to work with us on the first group of nominations," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D. He noted that some Democrats already had turned in positive reviews of some of the nominees.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, even attended the White House announcement. "Had I not been encouraged, I would not have been here today," he said.
Bush chose seven lawyers from states with Republican senators and two judges from New York and Louisiana, both with Democratic senators. He also selected a respected federal judge and former Judiciary Committee counsel from South Carolina, which is represented by Republican Strom Thurmond and Democrat Ernest "Fritz" Hollings.
But even with the administration's vetting, at least one nominee, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle of North Carolina, faces a difficult confirmation process because of past bitterness over senators' power to block judicial nominees.
Boyle, first nominated by Bush's father, is caught in a battle between Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Democratic Sen. John Edwards, both of North Carolina. Democrats blocked the former Helms aide in 1991, and Helms retaliated by blocking Clinton's nominees from North Carolina.
Edwards has threatened to block Boyle again.
"Until we find some constructive process that allows for balance, then I would not support any nominee, including Judge Boyle," he said.
The junior senator has yet to turn in his required approval form and has "reserved judgment" on Boyle, spokesman Mike Briggs said.
Edwards also sent a letter to Bush saying the renomination of North Carolina Court of Appeals Judge James A. Wynn could help solve the problem. Wynn was denied a confirmation hearing by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee for two years.
Other problems simmer just beneath the surface.
Democrats say there won't be any quick confirmation votes since Bush ended the American Bar Association's role in the White House vetting process.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a Judiciary Committee member, said the nominees won't be voted on until the ABA gives Democrats a report. "The Democrats will not be railroaded into rubber-stamping a group of judges," he said.
Democrats also recall Clinton's judges who were blocked by Republicans. Tensions over the judicial confirmation process has been high since Democrats scuttled the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork in 1987. Republicans, in turn, blocked many Clinton nominees to lower court seats.
"We will make sure it's a balanced judiciary," Leahy said. "Just as the Republicans felt they should keep a balanced judiciary when there's a Democratic president, we as Democrats feel there should be a balanced judiciary when there is a Republican president."
Bush said he wants "good faith" from the Senate. He cited the "backlogs, frustration and delay of justice" caused by vacancies and urged "a fair hearing and a prompt vote to every nominee."
Interest groups, meanwhile, are mounting opposition against some of the nominees.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced its opposition to University of Utah professor Michael McConnell, recognized as especially conservative on abortion rights and church-state separation. He was tapped for the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Denver.
"McConnell is the religious right's dream court nominee," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "He's a conservative Christian who's willing to use the force of government to impose his viewpoint."