The Senate formally reopens the battle over President Bush's judicial nominees today, focusing on the environmental record of a nominee whom Democrats blocked last year and are threatening to stymie again.
For the second time in two years, William G. Myers III will face Judiciary Committee members' questions about his record as the Interior Department's top lawyer and a lobbyist for mining and cattle interests. His answers may help Democrats decide whether to continue the contentious tactic of preventing a handful of Bush's appellate court nominees from reaching confirmation votes.
The impasse over judges is one of the most explosive issues facing the 109th Congress, and Senate Republicans have chosen Myers, an Idaho lawyer, as the year's first test case. He is one of seven appellate court nominees blocked by Democratic delaying tactics in Bush's first term but resubmitted by the president this year. Three other blocked nominees were withdrawn.
The Judiciary Committee appears certain to endorse Myers, meaning the showdown will occur -- as it did last summer -- on the Senate floor, perhaps in April. Sixty votes are needed to stop a filibuster and proceed to a confirmation vote. Republicans hold 55 seats, positioning Democrats again to block the contested nominees, who they say are outside the political mainstream.
Democrats intend to block the candidates, says Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), unless compelling new information arises that favors the renominations. To the extent there is new information about Myers -- regarding a controversial federal settlement with a rancher while he was at Interior -- it may hurt him more than help, Democrats say. GOP leaders have denounced the delaying tactics, vowing to take dramatic steps to stop them if necessary.
Myers, a Virginia native and graduate of William and Mary, is nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which handles many environmental cases. Judiciary Committee hearings on other appellate nominees -- including Thursday's session scheduled for Terrence W. Boyle -- are more likely to focus on issues such as civil rights. But the Myers debate centers almost entirely on the environment.
Myers, 49, received his law degree from the University of Denver and worked in the Justice and Energy departments under President George H.W. Bush. During the Clinton administration, he was a lawyer and lobbyist for ranching and mining groups. From 2001 to 2003, he was the solicitor, or top lawyer, for the Interior Department. He now practices law in Boise.
Critics cite a number of Myers's comments on environmental matters over the years. He once compared government management of public lands to "the tyrannical actions of King George," and suggested that regulations were turning the West into "little more than a theme park." He called the California Desert Protection Act "an example of legislative hubris."
Myers's defenders, including Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), say his critics hold an anti-West bias and do not understand Rockies regional issues. "Bill Myers is a person who knows the law and has spent a career representing his clients well," said Craig spokesman Daniel Whiting.
Myers did not respond to The Post's requests for comment but Justice Department spokesman John Nowacki called Myers "a well-qualified nominee who would be an excellent addition to the Ninth Circuit." Last year, Myers told Judiciary Committee members that his personal views "would not play any role" in his actions as a judge.
Today's hearing may touch on a recently released report by Earl Devaney, Interior's inspector general, concerning a legal settlement reached with a Wyoming rancher while Myers was Interior's top lawyer. The rancher, Harvey Frank Robbins, had engaged in a long and bitter dispute with federal officials over grazing rights. In 1998, he invoked the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in suing several Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees.
Summarizing his report in a Feb. 10 letter, Devaney did not name Myers but criticized actions of the solicitor's office during Myers's leadership. "Normal processes were circumvented" in reaching the Robbins settlement, he wrote. "Negotiations were conducted by the Office of Solicitor without involving BLM," and concerns raised by the Justice Department and a BLM field office "were ignored."
"The interests of the BLM . . . were not adequately protected" in the settlement, Devaney wrote, and there was "a profound lack of transparency in the overall negotiation and agreement process."
On Feb. 22, Devaney issued a statement saying his report "ascribed no fault whatsoever to Mr. Myers. To the contrary, a fair reading of the report would suggest that Myers was, in fact, victimized when he was given a distorted explanation," by a top aide, of why Robbins had not been required to drop his RICO suit as part of the settlement.
The aide, Robert Comer, told Myers that Justice Department officials had impeded plans to dismiss the RICO suit, a contention that Justice called "an absolute falsehood," according to Devaney's report. It adds: "When Myers was interviewed about [the] matter, he stated that he had no knowledge that DOJ had expressed any concerns about the agreement to Comer or to any other SOL staff attorney. Myers stated that he was unaware that on July 18, 2002, and August 28, 2002, the AUSA [assistant U.S. attorney] had documented his concerns about the draft agreement in letters to the SOL staff attorney."
At last year's Judiciary Committee hearing, which occurred before Devaney's report was written, Myers said of the Robbins case: "I was not involved in the negotiations or discussions of that settlement other than to tell a subordinate attorney that he had the authority to try to settle that case."
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said, "The best that can be said for William Myers is he's inattentive and indifferent. He wasn't paying attention to what everybody agrees was a high-profile case."