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Inside Politics

Pickering appointment angers Democrats

Bush bypasses Senate, picks judge for federal appellate bench

From John King
CNN Washington Bureau

U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering
U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering

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Charles Pickering
Judicial Nominations

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Bypassing the Senate confirmation process, President Bush used a recess appointment to grant U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering a spot on the federal appeals bench.

The president's move Friday stokes a long-simmering feud with Senate Democrats over judicial nominations, including a two-year struggle involving Pickering.

Democrats have stalled Pickering's nomination by keeping Republicans from getting the votes needed to break a filibuster in the GOP-controlled Senate. (Full story) The judge previously failed to receive confirmation when Democrats were in charge of the Senate. (Full story)

But Bush's appointment means the judge can assume a temporary seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Such appointments usually are valid until the next Congress takes office -- in this case January 2005.

The Senate still would have to confirm Pickering for him to remain on the 5th Circuit, which is based in New Orleans, Louisiana.

"A bipartisan majority of senators supports his confirmation, and if he were given a vote, he would be confirmed," President Bush said in a statement Friday.

"But a minority of Democratic senators has been using unprecedented obstructionist tactics to prevent him and other qualified individuals from receiving up-or-down votes," the statement said. "Their tactics are inconsistent with the Senate's constitutional responsibility and are hurting our judicial system."

The president said he was proud to appoint Pickering, whom he described as "highly qualified to serve on the Court of Appeals." Bush also said the judge "has widespread bipartisan support from those who know him best."

Schumer: 'A finger in the eye'

The president's use of the recess appointment a week before Congress returns to Washington appears certain to further antagonize Democrats.

The move also was a reminder that both parties view judicial nominations -- rarely an issue that generates national debate -- as part of an election-year battleground.

Bush's father nominated Pickering to a U.S. District Court seat in Mississippi in 1990, and the Senate confirmed the judge.

Pickering's critics contend he would not uphold abortion rights, and they question his record on civil rights. They note that he has been critical of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They also point to a law review article he wrote more than 40 years ago, suggesting ways to amend Mississippi's law banning interracial marriages so that it would pass constitutional muster. Pickering has repudiated the article.

Supporters have said the judge has been the target of a smear campaign.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, said Pickering's appointment "serves only to emphasize again this administration's shameful opposition to civil rights."

"The president's recess appointment of this anti-civil rights judge the day after laying a wreath on the grave of Martin Luther King is an insult to Dr. King, an insult to every African-American and an insult to all Americans who share Dr. King's great goals," Kennedy said in a written statement, referring to the president's visit to the tomb of the slain civil rights leader in Atlanta, Georgia.

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York echoed his fellow Democrat.

"As the new year began, many of us had hoped the president would adopt a more bipartisan approach in his selection of judges," Schumer said in statement. "Instead, this recess appointment is a finger in the eye to all those seeking fairness and bipartisanship in the judicial nominations process."

The man who pushed Pickering's nomination, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, praised Bush's action.

"While temporary recess appointments certainly are not a preferred means of getting quality judges on the bench, in this exceptional case, Judge Pickering's record deems this recess appointment fully appropriate," Lott said.

Lott promised to continue to push for a formal Senate confirmation vote.

The Constitution gives presidents the power to bypass Congress and make "recess" appointments to judgeships and other positions that require Senate confirmation. Since 1789, when the first judicial recess appointment was made, presidents have appointed more than 300 judges by this method.

Most recently, President Clinton used the temporary recess appointment to put Roger Gregory on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2000. Clinton originally appointed the jurist in June 2000, but the Republican-controlled Senate declined to give him a confirmation hearing.

Gregory, the first African-American named to the 4th Circuit, then became one of Bush's first nominees, and the Senate -- controlled by the Democrats in July 2001 -- confirmed him. (Full story)

Presidential hopefuls join in criticism

Democratic presidential hopefuls in Iowa also denounced Bush's appointment of Pickering.

"Here we are on the weekend before a national holiday when we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday, and George W. Bush celebrates it by appointing Charles Pickering ... to the federal court in the United States," said Sen. John Kerry, stumping in Iowa.

"Once again, say one thing, symbol one thing, and he does that a day after going down to Atlanta to honor Martin Luther King."

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean called Bush hypocritical in making the appointment.

"It is especially offensive that the president made this decision on the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, and one day after his photo op at Dr. King's grave," Dean said in a written statement.

"[The] egregious appointment is another reason why we need a president and an administration in Washington that stands up for all Americans."

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