TOPICS > Politics

Background: Shaping the Courts

February 7, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Every judge I appoint will be a person who clearly understands the role of a judge is to interpret the law, not to legislate from the bench.

RAY SUAREZ: President Bush said political ideology had not influenced his choice of his first 11 judicial nominees introduced last May at the White House, and he said it should not influence the Senate’s constitutional duty to confirm them.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Over the years, we have seen how the confirmation process can be turned to other ends. We have seen political battles played out in committee hearings, battles that have little to do with the merits of the person sitting before the committee. I urge Senators of both parties to rise above the bitterness of the past to provide a fair hearing and a prompt vote to every nominee.

RAY SUAREZ: A few hours later, Democrats who now control the Senate indicated some of those nominees, and subsequent ones, might be too ideological for their tastes.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: What we’ve made clear today is that the Democrats in the Senate will not be railroaded into rubberstamping a group of judges over the course of the next year who may have a very hard ideological cast to them.

RAY SUAREZ: The Senate has confirmed 32 Bush judicial nominees; 57 await consideration by the full Senate or its Judiciary Committee. Three of the eleven nominated by Mr. Bush in May were confirmed. In his 2001 year-end report on the federal judiciary, Chief Justice William Rehnquist cited an “alarming number of judicial vacancies”– then 94– and noted that confirmation delays occur regardless of which party controls the Senate.

The latest judicial confirmation battle involves federal Judge Charles Pickering, whom President Bush wants to elevate to an appeals court vacancy. Pickering was appointed to the bench by the first President Bush, and has been a friend and political ally of Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott. His son, Chip, worked for Lott, and is now a Republican House member from Mississippi.

Judge Pickering is opposed by the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP. He has been criticized for alleged segregationist leanings 40 years ago as a law student and then as a state Senator. Abortion rights groups also oppose his elevation. Proponents say he’s been progressive on civil rights, even testifying against a Ku Klux Klansman in a 1960s murder trial. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, questioned Pickering about rulings on hot button issues: gun control, civil rights, and abortion.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: And what is your position today on a constitutional amendment to ban abortion?

CHARLES PICKERING: Well, you know, my personal views I think are immaterial and irrelevant, and it would be inappropriate for me to share my personal views. I will tell you that I will follow the Constitution and I will apply the Supreme Court precedent.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Thank you very much. Let me go to the issue…

CHARLES PICKERING: And I have, madam chairman, I have shown that I can take a position that is a legal position, regardless of what my personal view is. I’ve demonstrated that in ten years on the bench.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: You say you follow the law, not your personal opinion. But I look at your record as a district judge. You have been reversed by the Fifth Circuit at least 26 times. Now, either that is because you followed your personal opinion or you didn’t follow the law. It’s got to be one or the other.

CHARLES PICKERING: 25 or 26, out of 4,000 — that’s slightly more than one half of one% of the cases that I’ve handled.

RAY SUAREZ: A vote on Pickering’s nomination has not been scheduled.