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Justice for Judges: Senate Democrats Threaten to Use Republican Tactics and the GOP Screams Bloody Murder

By David Lytel

It’s a new dawn. The Bush Administration released its first round of judicial appointments today and the Senate Democrats are finally threatening to act like Republicans. The Democrats are making it clear that they are prepared to adopt the brutal tactics that the Republicans pioneered in the last 8 years that are personified by right wing zealot North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. Helms simply blockaded the process. He opposed the appointment of any judges on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals with the bald faced lie that he wanted to save the taxpayers money. Now, of course, he’s changed his mind and will permit the appointments process to proceed – since Bush is willing to nominate right wing zealots.

Just listen to Senator Orrin Hatch squeal in today’s Wall Street Journal: “The… single-senator veto must be seen for what it is: an attempt to impose an ideological litmus test on judicial nominees. If [they] were concerned about anything other than ideology – credentials and competence, for example – they could expose the nominees weaknesses in public during committee hearings.” Let’s be clear about what Hatch is complaining about – that the hardball tactics invented by the Republicans in their all out war against President Clinton might now be used by Democrats. It is as if Hatch never contemplated this horrible prospect until just yesterday.

The first thing to come from this is the considerable pleasure of seeing the Wall Street Journal screech like a stuck pig. In their lead editorial on Tuesday they accused North Carolina’s other senator, Democrat Jonathan Edwards of attempting to “hijack the President’s judicial nominating power.” Today one of their columnists observed that “Senate Democrats are turning judicial selection into a brass-knuckled partisan street fight.”

Well, it’s about time.

Unless the Senate Democrats exert some countervailing force, the Republican’s attempt to twist the political composition of the federal judiciary will succeed.

How does the Republican Party show its disgust at the obstructionist tactics engaged in by Senator Helms for the past eight years? By nominating his favored candidate – Terrence Boyle – to the 4th Circuit. The newspapers in North Carolina have been very hard on Senator Helms, which means they are finally exposing him for what he is. The Wilmington Morning Star, for example, calls him a “brazen, flip-flopping hypocrite.” The Greensboro News & Record calls him “an arrant liar.”

In what they are spinning as a concession, Bush is also naming Roger Gregory to the 4th circuit, a black jurist that Clinton tried to put on the bench. This is precisely the same deal – one of ours and one of yours – that Helms has rejected for the past 8 years. His reward? Bush adds an additional nomination of another trusted right winger, Dennis Shedd, whose past rulings include striking down Federal privacy laws as infringements on a state’s right to render public whatever information it gathers about you. If you’re keeping score, that’s two right wing zealots for the other side and one moderate for ours. To the Republicans, this is a great deal, and why wouldn’t it be?

The traditions of the Senate judicial confirmation process give the Democrats considerable leverage, which majority leader Tom Daschle says they intend to use.

Daschle promises that Democrats will block judicial nominations by Bush unless they have the backing of both senators from a nominee's home state. Senate Democrats, according to Daschle, “can guarantee that the [nominations] will not reach cloture," meaning the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster and force action.

So with 32 states having at least one Democratic Senator, the ability of the Democrats to force the White House and the Senate Republicans to deal with them is considerable.

Our only regret is that Daschle’s willingness to use this leverage has only extended – so far – to the political composition of the federal judiciary. This is a vital issue over which to draw a line, but Daschle’s demand for equal treatment does’t go far enough. The Republicans masterfully used their majority on the U.S. Supreme Court to impose a judicially-mandated selection in the presidential contest on the American people. To us, the power the Democrats have to obstruct the continued rightward tilt of the Federal judicary should include the demand for genuine election reform and an independent counsel to bring the criminals behind Florida’s stolen election to justice. In return for a few lifetime appointments to the federal bench, is it really unreasonable to demand a little justice to go along with that?