Correction to This Article
A previous version of this article incorrectly described Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) as the cousin-in-law of Michigan appellate judge Helene White. White divorced Levin's cousin, retired Michigan Supreme Court Justice Charles Levin, in November 2006, according to the senator's office.

Ye Shall Be Judged -- Not

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By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, May 5, 2008

P resident Bush hasn't been having an easy time lately with Congress: One case in point is the ongoing confrontation over his judicial nominations.

Only a few weeks ago, the White House appeared pleased that Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) agreed, under GOP pressure, to move three appellate nominees through the Senate by Memorial Day. Here was an opportunity, some conservatives thought, to finally approve the long-standing nomination of former Justice Department official Peter D. Keisler for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and provide reinforcements for the 4th Circuit, a conservative bulwark that handles some of the country's most sensitive terrorism cases.

But as Memorial Day approaches, it's becoming increasingly clear that the Democrats have other ideas. They do appear to be on track to fulfill Reid's promise of approving three Circuit Court nominees, but only one of the three can be fairly described as someone Bush wanted.

Last week, for instance, the Judiciary Committee held hearings on the nomination of Virginia Supreme Court Justice G. Steven Agee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. The White House had wanted another nominee but was forced to backtrack because of opposition from Virginia Sens. John W. Warner (R) and James Webb (D). Agee was recommended by the two Virginia senators.

This week, the committee will consider the nominations of a pair of Michigan jurists to the 6th Circuit, but only one of them, Raymond M. Kethledge, is a Bush choice. The other is Michigan appellate judge Helene N. White, whose nomination by President Clinton was blocked by Senate Republicans. Bush agreed to submit her name for the 6th Circuit as part of a deal with Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), who is White's cousin-in-law.

White House aides are not complaining about the apparent plan to approve Agee, White and Kethledge, but they are also not squealing with delight, either. Bush's other nominees, such as Keisler, have been waiting for months with no sign that the Democrats will even hold nomination hearings. The White House would almost certainly prefer the Senate approve two different conservative jurists for the 4th Circuit, Robert J. Conrad Jr. and Stev e A. Matthews-- both of whom were nominated nearly a year ago.

One White House official said there's "an equity issue. These [other] guys have been hanging out there for quite some time as well. They deserve to be confirmed as well."

The back story here is the convoluted politics of judicial nominations. Keisler, who served as acting attorney general after Alberto R. Gonzales resigned, is a respected lawyer with friends and admirers on both sides of the aisle, but Democrats and Republicans have been fighting over the D.C. Circuit since the Clinton administration. Judiciary Democrats have not forgotten Republicans' refusal to consider two of Clinton's appointees because the workload of the prestigious court was deemed too light: Keisler would take one of the positions that should have been filled by a Clinton appointee, Democrats believe.

Meanwhile, there's a struggle going on for the direction of the 4th Circuit, which has been dominated by conservatives for years but now appears evenly split because of retirements. If the Democrats can run out the clock on the Bush administration -- and elect one of their own to the presidency -- they could theoretically tilt the court in a more liberal direction.

But how much trouble Senate Republicans will make for the Democrats? Reid agreed only to try to confirm three judges by Memorial Day after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) threatened to scuttle a highway funding bill.

The politics of the situation does not augur well for the White House. The administration is angry that the Senate is falling behind what officials argue is its historical pattern of approving 15 to 17 appellate nominations in the last two years of a president's term (seven have been approved), but Democrats are offering no indication that they plan to speed things up.

A Prairie Chapel Companion

There's scarcely a day goes by, it seems, that Bush does not mention the impending nuptials of his daughter Jenna at his Crawford, Tex., ranch this Saturday night. But other than gentle joshing from the commander in chief, the White House has been close-lipped about the guest list and most details of the first presidential wedding since Tricia Nixon married Edward Cox at the White House in 1971. The most the traveling press appears likely to get is a photograph or two.


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