For 14 years, U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle has been trying to win promotion to the Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. He gets another shot today with a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it comes amid a larger, acrimonious debate over judges that may complicate matters for all nominees, new and old.
Several liberal groups oppose Boyle, a onetime aide to retired senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), saying he is unacceptably conservative on workplace discrimination and voting rights questions. Republicans say he has proved his independence and fairness in his 20 years on the federal bench, and deserves the long-awaited advancement.
Today's hearing may help Senate Democrats decide whether to add Boyle to a short list of appellate court nominees they hope to block with filibusters, contending that the appointees are outside the political mainstream. The impasse has set GOP and Democratic senators on an apparent collision course unless a truce is reached in the next few weeks.
The Richmond-based 4th Circuit serves Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and both Carolinas, and is considered perhaps the nation's most conservative appellate court. Boyle, based in eastern North Carolina, was nominated to that court in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, but the Democratic-controlled Senate did not hold a confirmation vote.
Helms responded by blocking several of President Bill Clinton's nominees. President George W. Bush renominated Boyle in May 2001, but then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) criticized his record and prevented him from having a Judiciary Committee hearing.
Edwards is gone, and Boyle, 59, finally gets his hearing today. "I am so pleased that we can finally move forward with these nominations that have been unconscionably held up for too long," Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) said last week. But Judiciary Committee Democrats, armed with research from liberal groups, say they will press Boyle on why the appeals courts have overturned more than 150 of his decisions.
Boyle "has the worst reversal rate of all the district court judges nominated [to appellate courts] by President Bush, and his rulings reflect a judicial philosophy that is very damaging to the rights of average Americans," said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way. Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said Boyle is unfit for the higher court and has "demonstrated a sustained hostility to civil rights."
But a number of prominent North Carolina lawyers, some of them Democrats, have praised Boyle's record as a judge. A recent editorial in the News and Observer of Raleigh -- which often feuded with Helms -- said Boyle "is well qualified and respected by many lawyers and other judges, but he was caught in the crossfire of partisan warfare."
Boyle's critics often cite a 1998 North Carolina congressional redistricting case in which he struck down a district drawn to include a large number of black voters. Boyle ruled that the state legislature had relied too heavily on racial factors in shaping the district.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, overturned the ruling. It said Boyle erred in finding that race was "the predominant factor" in the process.
Democrats also note that Boyle has been overturned in some workplace discrimination cases in which he sided with employers.