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Judiciary committee rejects federal judge nominee

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate Judiciary Committee, voting along party lines, Thursday rejected the nomination of Charles Pickering Sr. for a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- the highest-ranking judicial nomination to be turned down since President Bush took office.

The committee's decision came on a 10-9 vote, with all Democrats voting no and all Republicans voting yes. By an identical vote, the committee rejected two Republican attempts to send the nomination to the full Senate, effectively killing the nomination.

Bush called the rejection "unfortunate for democracy and unfortunate for America." (Bush statement)

In response to the committee's vote, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, who had championed the nomination of his fellow Mississippian and said Pickering had been put through an "unfair crucible," hinted that Republicans may start taking steps to slow down the work of the Senate if Democrats continue to thwart Bush's judicial nominations, including future appointments to the Supreme Court.

Bush: Pickering vote 'unfortunate for democracy' 
EXTRA INFORMATION profile: Charles W. Pickering, Sr. 

"If we don't see marked progress, if we don't see an end to the character assassination, the Senate will not be the same for a long time," he said. "I don't mean it as a threat. I mean it as a requirement -- something that we've got to find a way to do."

Noting that eight people nominated to appellate courts before Pickering have not even had hearings, Lott introduced a resolution calling on the judiciary committee to complete its work on those nominations by May.

After the vote, Pickering said he was "extremely disturbed" that his nomination "degenerated into such a bitter and mean-spirited process."

"This has been painful for me and for my family," said Pickering, speaking outside the federal courthouse in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he serves as a District Court judge. "Although I am disappointed, I am in good spirits. I will not let what has happened to me during this process embitter me or shape the balance of my life. Life is too precious."

Pickering said he was grateful for Bush's support and "touched and humbled by those who know me best, my friends and neighbors in Mississippi, both African-American and white, both Democrat and Republican, who have defended my record in such a gracious and magnanimous way."

Hatch and Leahy
Hatch, left, and Leahy led their sides in a party-line vote.  

Senate Democrats and Republicans, who have sparred over the Pickering nomination for weeks, traded barbs during hours of contentious debate before the vote Thursday evening.

The rejection was hardly a surprise. Pickering's nomination had turned into a bitter partisan battle, with the National Abortion Rights Action League, the NAACP of Mississippi, the AFL-CIO and other groups voicing strong opposition.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, said Pickering does not have "the temperament" for a seat on the New Orleans, Louisiana-based appeals court. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, countered by saying Pickering has the discipline "to enforce the law in the right way."

Some of the sharpest words came from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the ranking Republican on the committee.

In a 30-minute statement, he accused his Democratic colleagues of "egregious stall tactics" and said the Pickering "smear campaign" was a "mere warm-up battle for the ideological war" that he predicted will be waged over any potential Bush Supreme Court nominations.

"I want to set things straight," said Hatch. "I know Judge Pickering. I've had extensive conversations with him. He is truly a righteous and decent man."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, disputed contentions that Democrats were on "some sort of a witch hunt."

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Schumer said. "This is about his record."

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, said he had ethical concerns about Pickering as well as problems with his record on civil rights. "He does not have a sufficiently strong dedication to civil rights law that I believe a judge on this circuit court must have."

He added, "I just believe that Judge Pickering is not the right choice for this position."

Bush on Wednesday had urged the committee to accept the nomination and uphold the Constitution by throwing the vote to the Senate floor. The president also expressed his dismay with the partisan battle over Pickering.

"Unfortunately, we are seeing a disturbing pattern where too often judicial nominations are being turned into ideological battles that delay justice and hurt our democracy," the president said in a wide-ranging news conference Wednesday.

But the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, disputed the suggestion that the Democratic-controlled committee is giving Bush's judicial nominations short shrift. He noted that the committee has considered 43 judicial nominations since he became chairman, 42 of which -- all but Pickering -- have been approved with bipartisan votes.

Critics say Pickering -- a former president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, as well as the former chair of the state's Republican Party -- opposes abortion rights and has been critical of the Voting Rights Act. They have also pointed to a law review article Pickering wrote more than 40 years ago suggesting ways to amend the state's law banning interracial marriages so that it would pass constitutional muster.

Supporters say his record has been distorted and that critics have looked too far into his past to find examples worth criticizing. Among his backers were former Mississippi Gov. William Winter and Frank Hunger, former Vice President Al Gore's brother-in-law, both prominent Democrats.

Lott said that he believes that the defeat of Pickering was a "slap" at Mississippi and that Pickering's critics were judging him unfairly based on the "ghosts of the past."

"It's an attack on my state, it's an attack on the nominee's religion, it's an attack on his position on race which was inaccurate," Lott said.

Lott said he believes the decision to kill Pickering's nomination was "payback" by Democrats who accused Republicans of delaying and derailing former President Clinton's judicial nominees when they controlled the Senate.

"The problem with payback is, when does it ever end?" Lott said.




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