Oppose Pickering nomination

The nomination of Judge Charles Pickering for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has generated the most heated debate yet over one of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominations. And rightly so. Pickering appears to be the first step in an effort by Senate Republicans and the Bush administration to stock the many circuit court vacancies with judges who hold conservative or, in some cases, downright regressive ideologies. With the U.S. Supreme Court taking on fewer cases every year, the circuit courts are often making what amounts to the final determination of the application of U.S. citizens’ rights. Stocking these positions with lifetime appointees who oppose much of the social progress made during the last half-century would be detrimental for civil liberties in the United States.

Pickering, for instance, has opposed the “one person, one vote” policy, calling the idea “obstructionist.” In addition, Pickering, who has been a federal judge in the Southern District of Mississippi since 1990, tried in 1994 to get the Justice Department to reduce the sentence of a man accused of burning a cross on someone’s lawn. This, along with some of Pickering’s other past actions, has prompted groups such as the NAACP to doubt his commitment to civil rights. And during the Senate Judiciary Committee nomination hearings, senators questioned Pickering about his solicitation of letters of recommendation from lawyers and groups who might appear in his court in the future, citing conflict of interest concerns.

With all this piling up, it seems logical to concede the defeat of this flawed candidate and fight instead for another, more palatable nominee. This seems especially true in light of Republicans’ correct claims that the mass of circuit court vacancies poses a serious threat to the U.S. judicial process.

Unfortunately, Republicans have done just the opposite, with the Bush administration throwing its full weight behind Pickering. Facing an almost certain defeat within the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, last week postponed a vote on Pickering until Thursday. In the meantime, both sides have been maneuvering to either gain or keep the upper hand on this issue in preparation for conflicts over other judicial nominees.

And with approximately 50 nominees waiting, those conflicts are inevitable. Democrats must hold their ground and not allow the politics of some of Bush’s nominees to infect the judicial system. There is a need to fill the vacancies, but Republicans would do well to remember who created those vacancies by blocking so many nominees during the last administration. If Bush is serious about fixing the problem, he should rethink his nominations.