Senate Democrats, who were so divided on the war and tax cuts, are holding together impressively to stop the Worst of the Worst of President Bush’s judicial nominees. Filibusters against Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen have prevailed, and every Democrat on the Judiciary Committee recently voted against Carolyn Kuhl, setting up another likely filibuster if this antichoice nominee’s candidacy reaches the floor.
A recognition has dawned on almost all the Senate Democrats that Bush is trying to remake America through his lifetime appointments to the federal bench. He is attempting to pack the courts with zealots and activists who are not impartial and who will legislate from the bench. The Senate Democrats have finally realized that this is an assault on their electoral base–women, minorities, workers, consumers–and even conservatives like Fritz Hollings and Mary Landrieu are holding fast on the filibuster. Democratic minority leader Tom Daschle has made the rejection of extremist judges a test of his leadership. Before the filibuster began against Estrada, Daschle told his conference, “We are in this through the tenth cloture vote and the twentieth cloture vote,” signaling he would resign as leader if there were defections in the midst of battle.
Nan Aron, the president of the Alliance for Justice, which monitors judicial nominations, credits the tenacity of Daschle, along with Charles Schumer, Patrick Leahy and Ted Kennedy, with making the filibuster strategy work. “Schumer is a tiger,” she says. “There is leadership here.”
These judicial fights are in effect spring training for the coming battle over Supreme Court vacancies expected this summer. The Democrats are sending Bush the message–in neon–that they have sufficient cohesion to stop any nominees in the image of Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia.
Daschle has pointed out that the Democrats have failed to confirm only two of Bush’s 126 judicial nominees so far (several others are still under consideration). Republicans blocked sixty-five of Bill Clinton’s nominees–including fifty who were never even given the courtesy of a hearing. The Democrats have been shrewdly selective, choosing to oppose only the most fanatical ideologues like Kuhl, Charles Pickering, James Leon Holmes, Owen and Estrada.
Bush and Senate majority leader Bill Frist keep seeking roll calls on Estrada, cynically thinking they can gain Hispanic votes next year by creating a Hispanic martyr and accusing liberals of racial prejudice. But Estrada, who was born in Honduras, remains unknown in Latino communities; and both the Puerto Rican and Mexican legal defense funds oppose him. The Republicans are also crying “politics of personal destruction.” But they forget that the modern judicial wars began when Republicans successfully filibustered against LBJ’s nomination of Abe Fortas for Chief Justice in 1968, and when Representative Gerald Ford launched an effort to impeach Justice William O. Douglas in 1970, making the baseless charge of organized crime ties. Robert Bork was defeated in 1987, but that fight was strictly over his ideas, not any alleged personal vices.