In the last six years of Democrat Bill Clinton's tenure as president, the American judicial system was hostage to partisan politics, Republican style. But now that a Republican president occupies the White House, GOP senators who were instrumental in blocking many of Clinton's appointments to the bench are singing a different tune.
But it isn't music to the ears of Democrats on Capitol Hill. As they rightly point out, the Republicans were warned during the Clinton years that their gleeful intransigence would come back to haunt them. And it has.
Given the 50-50 split in the Senate and in the Senate Judiciary Committee, President George W. Bush is finding out that political acrimony dies hard. To further exacerbate the situation, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the judiciary committee, has made it clear that he does not intend to follow the same procedure for senatorial advise and consent that his party embraced in the last six years.
In other words, Hatch wants the country to forget that when Clinton submitted the names of judicial appointees, the process required both senators from an appointee's state to approve. If one objected, the appointment died.
Now, however, Hatch says he will consider the senators' views, but will not be bound by them. The message from the chairman is clear: Democratic senators can object all they want to Bush's nominations, but their opinions will be ultimately ignored by the GOP leadership.
Warning: It is not surprising, therefore, that the nine Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee have issued a warning that they will stand in the way of any nominee who lacks the support of his or her senators.
The prospect of a continuing impasse over the filling of numerous federal judicial positions brought this appeal from Bush: "I urge senators from both parties to rise above the bitterness of the past, to provide a fair hearing and a prompt vote to every nominee." The president would have been better advised to direct his criticism at members of his own party and to hold out an olive branch to the Democrats.
Bush has announced 11 nominees to federal appeals courts, including Ohio Supreme Court Justice Deborah Cook to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The group also includes Roger L. Gregory, who was given a one-year appointment to the 4th Circuit by President Clinton while the Senate was in recess last year. Republicans in the Senate had blocked Gregory's nomination.
That appointment by Bush was obviously designed to win over Democrats, but it will take more than one nominee to erase the bitterness. What the president must realize is that Democrats do have the ability to block his judicial nominations in the same way as the Republicans did during the Clinton years.
Consultation: Therefore, he must tread softly, which means not selecting ultra conservatives for the bench, as many GOP right-wingers want him to do. He would be wise to consult with the Democratic leadership in developing his list of nominees and should know that ideological middle-of-the-roaders would have a far better chance of being approved than extremists.
Bush will have a much easier road if he can demonstrate that his nominees were selected for their judicial temperament, impartiality and independence rather than their commitment to turning back the clock on such issues as abortion and civil rights.