News Articles

Senate committee rejects Pickering, raising abortion challenges for Bush

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the nomination of Charles Pickering to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals March 14, demonstrating it will strongly resist President Bush’s selection of conservative, pro-life judges to the federal bench.

The 10 Democrats on the committee voted three times against Pickering, while all nine Republicans voted for the federal judge in each case. The committee refused to report his nomination to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation. It also voted against reporting his nomination to the Senate without a recommendation or with a negative recommendation.

It is possible Republicans could use a parliamentary maneuver to gain a floor vote for Pickering, but it appears unlikely.

The president said he was “deeply disappointed” Pickering’s nomination was not forwarded to the Senate.

“It was unfortunate for democracy and unfortunate for America,” Bush said in a written statement. “Judge Pickering has earned the praise and support of those who know him and know his record best — both Democrats and Republicans from his home state of Mississippi. They know him to be a fair and measured judge, an advocate of civil rights and a dedicated member of his community. He has served with distinction and deserves better than to be blocked by a party-line vote of 10 senators on one committee. The voice of the entire Senate deserves to be heard.”

Pickering, who has served as a federal judge in Mississippi the last 11 years, is a member of First Baptist Church in Laurel, Miss., and was president of the state Baptist convention for two years in the mid-1980s. He also was a member of the Peace Committee that was established in 1985 during the controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention.

National organizations such as People for the American Way (PFAW), the NAACP and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League attacked Pickering’s record on civil rights, as well as his views on abortion rights and church-state separation, in an effort to block his confirmation. Supporters of his confirmation, however, charged the opposition campaign was based on a distortion of Pickering’s record on civil rights and on concerns about future rulings on abortion.

Backers of Pickering bemoaned the committee’s action. “I think it is disgraceful political gamesmanship for a good man with an impeccable judicial record to be rejected,” said Shannon Royce, director of government relations for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “I think the fact that the Democrats on the committee would not allow his name to be released for full Senate consideration is unacceptable.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, called it “very troubling to see a small number of Senate Democrats subvert the Constitution and the democratic process by embracing the politics of obstruction and destruction.”

“It is clear there is a strategy to reject well-qualified judicial nominees presented by the president,” Sekulow said in a written release. “It is disturbing that the political and ideological leanings of a few can derail a constitutional process that is vital to our system of justice.”

Some of Pickering’s supporters pointed out some past judicial nominees had been forwarded to the Senate after failing to be favorably recommended by the Judiciary Committee. Even a judge as controversial as Robert Bork, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Reagan, was afforded Senate consideration after receiving a negative vote in the Judiciary Committee, they said. The Senate refused to approve Bork.

It appeared Pickering, however, would have gained enough Democratic votes on the floor to be confirmed. Before the committee vote, Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D.-S.D., had said he would not permit a floor vote on the nominee without the panel’s approval.

Opponents of Pickering on and off the committee called for Bush to refuse to send similar nominees to the Senate.

“Pickering’s defeat offers President Bush the opportunity to set politics aside and nominate a judge for the Fifth Circuit who reflects America’s mainstream views and broad support for a woman’s freedom to choose without government interference,” said NARAL President Kate Michelman in a written statement.

PFAW President Ralph Neas said in a written release the vote was “a victory for Americans opposed to right-wing domination of the federal courts.”

Even some Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who criticized Pickering’s civil rights record acknowledged before the vote the judge was not a racist, according to news reports.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D.-N.Y., was one of those. According to The Washington Post, Schumer said, “There’s clearly no mandate from the American people to stack the courts with conservative ideologues. So if the White House persists in sending us nominees who threaten to throw the courts out of whack with the country, we have no choice but to vote ‘no.'”

Conservatives, including pro-lifers, had said the Pickering nomination probably would be a prelude to a battle over a Supreme Court nominee from Bush.

Supporters of the judge’s confirmation contended Pickering’s civil rights record in Mississippi was a worthy one. Support from some black leaders in Laurel and other parts of the state demonstrated this, they said. James Charles Evers, brother of murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers, wrote a defense of the judge in The Wall Street Journal, citing, among the evidence, Pickering’s testimony against the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in 1967.

The ERLC endorsed Pickering’s confirmation, an uncommon occurrence for the entity. The ELRC never endorses candidates for elective office because people have the opportunity to vote, but it sometimes gets involved in the confirmation process when senators, not the voters themselves, are the ones voting, ERLC President Richard Land has said. The ERLC endorsed the confirmation of John Ashcroft for attorney general last year.

Pickering is the father of Rep. Chip Pickering, R.-Miss., who attended the committee meeting. He told CNS News, “I hope that, regardless of whether my father’s nomination continues to go forward both parties could step back, reform the process, reach agreement on how nominations will be held in the future. I do think it is a very dangerous precedent to misinterpret the ‘advise and consent’ clause of the Constitution to mean 10 senators can stop a nomination.”