After months of struggle, first by Mississippi activists, then by national civil rights groups and finally by a handful of determined Democratic members of the U.S. Senate, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday blocked the nomination of Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering to serve on the powerful 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The defeat of the nomination came as a vindication for groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Alliance for Justice and People for the American Way, which were viciously attacked by rightwing organizations, publications and senators when they first suggested that Pickering should be rejected because of his ties to Mississippi segregationists of the 1960s, his hostility as a federal judge to the application of civil rights laws, and concerns about his ethics.
The committee’s rejection of the Pickering selection marks the first time that one of President Bush’s judicial nominees has been rejected by Senate Democrats, who may soon be called upon to weigh the merits of a Bush nominee for the Supreme Court. To the delight of activists concerned by the caution of Congressional Democrats when it comes to challenging the president, the hearing that preceded the Pickering vote saw Democrats flex legislative muscles rarely used in recent months.
Referring to the Constitutional provision that empowers the Senate to offer advice and consent as regards presidential nominations, Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, declared, “It’s advise and consent, it is not advise and rubber stamp.”
In remarks that came at the close of a long and contentious committee session that played out before a packed hearing room, Leahy calmly described Pickering as a conservative judicial activist who “repeatedly injects his own opinions into his decisions on issues ranging from employment discrimination to voting rights.” The judge’s record, he argued, did not justify promotion to a federal bench that is located just one rung below the U.S. Supreme Court.
Moments later, the committee voted 10-9 to reject the Pickering nomination. The breakdown was along partisan lines, with Democrats opposing the nomination and Republicans supporting it. The Democratic majority remained in place on two additional procedural votes, in which Republican Senator Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, sought to advance the Pickering nomination to the Senate floor without a recommendation or with a negative recommendation.