Two judges getting new hearings

Published: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 9:36 p.m.
WASHINGTON - Two of President Bush's most contentious court nominations, Mississippi Judge Charles Pickering and Texas Judge Priscilla Owen, will face new questions this year from the same Democrats who rejected the appeals court appointments last year.
Pickering and Owen were the only two White House judicial nominees voted down by Judiciary Democrats when they controlled the Senate last year. Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, plans to let senators question the two again in hopes of rehabilitating their nominations.
Bush renominated the two earlier this month, much to the Democrats' chagrin.
"I'm trying to be cooperative," Hatch said. "We'll have a hearing on Pickering because I'm trying to show deference to them."
Pickering, a U.S. District judge in Hattiesburg, Miss., and a friend of Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., was blocked by Democrats last year after civil rights groups questioned his race-relations record. Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice and a friend of the president, was rejected after Democrats complained that her rulings were overly influenced by her personal beliefs.
Both were nominated for seats on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which handles federal appeals from Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.
Opposition to Pickering's nomination increased among Democrats after Lott made racially insensitive remarks and ultimately stepped down as GOP leader.
Pickering's hearing - which could come as early as March - would be his third before the Senate Judiciary Committee since his May 2001 nomination. Hatch did not give a timetable for Owen.
Democrats say the Judiciary Committee has already rejected both, and they have threatened to filibuster Pickering's nomination if it goes to the full Senate. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel's top Democrat, noted that the Republicans did not start their year by trying to get either Pickering or Owen approved quickly.
"Perhaps this is a sign that the Republicans on this committee recognize the unprecedented nature of these renominations and the divisiveness they engender," Leahy said in a statement.
Instead, the GOP will start with a Judiciary Committee vote on Miguel Estrada, who wants a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That court has often been a stepping stone to the Supreme Court.
Estrada received a unanimous well-qualified recommendation from the American Bar Association. If confirmed, he would become the first Hispanic on what is considered the second-highest court in the nation. He also has been mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee if a vacancy occurs during Bush's presidency.
A member of the law firm that represented Bush in his successful Supreme Court fight for the presidency in 2000, Estrada had to be renominated earlier this year because the Democratic-controlled Senate did not act on his nomination last year. Estrada has been waiting for a committee vote since May 2001. Republicans now control the Senate.
"It's an important vote," Hatch, R-Utah, said Friday. "I think he will pass out with significant support from this committee."
But Democrats, outnumbered 10-9 on the committee, already are gathering their forces to oppose Estrada.
"His selection for this court has generated tremendous controversy," Leahy said. "I think that is, in part, because he appears to have been groomed to be an activist appellate judge by well-placed conservatives."
During Estrada's five-hour confirmation hearing last year, Democrats repeatedly contended that he lacked judicial experience. That, plus his refusal to answer questions about specific cases, gave Democrats little to review, they said.
The Justice Department's solicitor general's office, where Estrada used to work, refused to release copies of memos and opinions he produced when he worked there.
"Miguel Estrada refused to answer question after question regarding his judicial philosophy and his views on Supreme Court cases of national interest," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "He gave senators no real insight into his judicial philosophy."

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