Group sounds alarm on judicial nominees

MILWAUKEE – On Dec. 3 the law office of Alex Flynn and Associates hosted a reception to welcome Nan Aron, founder and president of the Alliance for Justice, which is fighting to oppose unqualified, right-wing judicial nominees.

Guests here viewed “Packing the Courts,” an 11-minute documentary produced for AFJ last month and hosted by “Providence” and “MASH” star Mike Farrell, examining the records of George Bush’s choices for the federal bench. In the documentary, Farrell warns of “extremist nominees” who “favor the powerful over the weak.” At one point, it shows Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) calling Bush’s picks “out of the mainstream” and warning that if confirmed, “they’re going to be doing things that most people find outrageous.”

AFJ has evaluated judicial nominations since 1985, but Aron says the scope of the work has exploded with Bush’s packing of the courts. Groups traditionally involved in the issue, like lawyers and pro-choice groups, have been joined by virtually every national progressive movement. “It’s amazing,” said Aron. “There has never been a broader coalition organized around opposing these right-wing judicial candidates.”

The U.S. Senate, now Republican-controlled, reviews presidential judicial appointments. During the Bush administration, the Senate eliminated anonymous “holds” which were used to block dozens of Clinton judicial appointees. While President Bush has complained of the Senate dragging its heels on confirmations, it has actually approved 168 of his nominees, even working through the anthrax scare to hasten the process. The ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), notes that the judicial vacancy rate is the lowest in 13 years. Most of the vacancies arose during Clinton’s term, some as early as 1994 and 1995.

But the Democrats appear to have drawn the line. In May, they blocked the confirmation of ultra- right Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen to a seat on the Court of Appeals. They’ve since filibustered Alabama Attorney General William Pryor and Judges Charles Pickering, Carolyn Kuhl, and Janice Rogers Brown. Another nominee, Miguel Estrada, withdrew from consideration.

“If someone had said to me, you’ll have six judicial nominees filibustered by the Democrats in the Senate, I would have said, you’re crazy,” said Aron.

Judges matter, the AFJ says. In its documentary, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) questions Judge Kuhl on a case of a woman who disrobed for a medical exam and later discovered that a man observing was not a physician but a drug salesman. Her privacy lawsuit was blocked when Kuhl decided that she was at most “socially” uncomfortable and that “no reasonable person” could find the saleman’s observation highly offensive.

Charles Pickering, a one-time segregationist also known for “toughness” against criminal defendants, tried to reduce the sentence of a convicted cross-burner, calling his crime a “prank.” Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) says this shows him willing to “violate the clear provisions in the law.”

AFJ’s reports bristle with damning revelations. Pryor used his position of Alabama attorney general to file friend of the court briefs in cases nationwide to advance conservative causes like weakening the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, and Violence Against Women Act. He urged partial repeal of the Voting Rights Act, and tried to escape a promise to help disabled foster children. He fought gay rights and reproductive freedom, defended state-sponsored prayer and all-male schools, and worked to cut off access to attorneys and DNA tests that could prove accused criminals innocent.

AFJ Field Operations Director Kendra Sue Derby said that when Pryor was nominated, “We all said, ‘It can’t get worse than this.’”

“But then we got Janice Rogers Brown,” she said, noting that future nominations may be worse still.

Further information can be found at the AFJ website, www.independentjudiciary.com.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.