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Democrats vow fight on Pickering

Judge's renomination surprises many

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• Interactive: Charles W. Pickering Sr. 

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senate Democrats vowed Wednesday to block the elevation of Charles Pickering to a federal appeals court, one day after President Bush renominated the Mississippi judge and 30 others who had failed to win confirmation under the previous Democratic-controlled Senate.

"I'm prepared to do everything I can to stop the nomination of Justice Pickering," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We can do a lot better."

Bush renominated Pickering, Priscilla Owen of Texas and the others late Tuesday, only hours after the new Senate convened -- with Republicans in control. With the GOP in the majority, Bush has a better chance of moving his judicial nominations through, but Democrats can filibuster and block nominations that way.

The renomination of Pickering came as a surprise to many Washington insiders after speculation that Pickering's name would not turn up again following the recent Trent Lott firestorm.

Lott was forced to resign as Senate majority leader last month after making comments that many people saw as expressing support for segregation.

Pickering -- a Mississippi native and friend of Lott's -- was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee last March on a 10-9 party line vote.

Civil rights advocates and many Democrats criticized him as racially insensitive and questioned whether he would uphold civil rights.

Democrats returned to those themes Wednesday and pointedly raised references to the Lott controversy.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, cited the "painful reflection" brought on by Lott's comments.

"With the renomination of Charles Pickering to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, the White House called into question all of its promises to demonstrate that the party of Abraham Lincoln was truly committed to civil rights," said Durbin, who also sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer defended Pickering Wednesday, noting that he had won the support of the Senate for his earlier appointment.

"Judge Pickering was confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate just a short number of years ago," Fleischer said. "So if there is so much controversy about Judge Pickering, why did so many senators vote for him on the District court?"

Fleischer said the criticism of Pickering was not about race, but about "the ideology of a few liberal Democrats."

Other Republicans have strongly defended Pickering, saying the charges are unfair and that he is more than qualified to sit on a federal appeals court.

"He has quite an admirable record of race relations in Mississippi and got the unanimous support of the African-American community in Mississippi, including the NAACP," Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, said on January 1.

Pickering is a U.S. District judge in Mississippi; former chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party; former state senator and former president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention. He has been nominated for a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans.

Critics of Pickering had contended he would not uphold abortion rights and they questioned whether he would uphold civil rights. They noted that he has been critical of the Voting Rights Act. They also pointed to a law review article he wrote more than 40 years ago, suggesting ways to amend the state's law banning interracial marriages so that it would pass constitutional muster.

Tuesday, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, promised that the Democrats would "use every tool in our arsenal to ensure that his nomination is rejected again this year."

Republicans had sharply criticized the last Congress, saying it rejected Bush's judicial nominations due to partisan politics. With the GOP now in control of the chamber, they are hoping for a much easier confirmation process this time around.

The nominations include 17 for the Circuit Court of Appeals, including Pickering, and 14 for U.S. District Court.

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