Senate Republicans got off to a contentious start yesterday in their drive for rapid action on President Bush's judicial nominations as the Judiciary Committee, overriding Democratic protests, appeared ready to give swift approval to four appeals court nominees.
In the committee's first nomination hearings since Republicans took control of the Senate earlier this month, there were few signs of a letup in the partisan acrimony that has characterized the panel's handling of judicial nominations in recent years, regardless of which party controls the chamber.
Republicans, asking mainly friendly questions, indicated they would endorse the nominations of John G. Roberts to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and Jeffrey S. Sutton and Deborah L. Cook to the Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Questioning continued into the evening, and the hearing was to resume this morning.
Republicans are pushing for a vote today to approve the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the D.C. appeals court. Last year, when the committee was under Democratic control, it held a hearing for Estrada, who is regarded as a possible Bush choice to become the first Hispanic nominee to the Supreme Court. But the committee did not vote on his nomination.
With Republicans committed to speeding up action on Bush nominees, votes by the Senate are likely shortly after committee action unless Democrats filibuster the nominations, which they appear disinclined to do in these cases.
As yesterday's hearing began, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the committee's ranking Democrat, said it was unprecedented to cram so many controversial appeals court nominations into one hearing. He called it "a headlong effort to pack the courts" with conservative judges.
"There's a tremendous rush to judgment here," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "If it's rankling some people, it's no wonder. The White House says, 'Put them in, get them done as fast as you can, ask as few questions as possible, and just move them.' "
Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said he would try to accommodate Democratic concerns but held his ground, saying it was important to act quickly on the three nominees. "I think we ought to be able to move ahead, and I'm prepared to, you know, do what we have to do," he said.
Many committee Democrats regard Roberts and Cook as conservatives who would tilt the courts too far to the right. But they focused their fire on Sutton, a Columbus, Ohio, lawyer whom they accused of making a career out of legal challenges aimed at strengthening states' rights at the expense of federal powers. They focused especially on his successful argument before the Supreme Court in 2000 that resulted in a ruling that Congress exceeded its authority in allowing state employees to sue under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Sutton's role in disability cases prompted a huge turnout of disabled people, many of them in wheelchairs. Hatch moved the hearing to a larger room to accommodate the crowd.
Sutton said he has represented an array of clients, including "opposite sides of nearly every issue," as well as cases determined by others when he was state solicitor for Ohio. He noted that, in addition to defending Ohio against discrimination suits, he defended its minority set-aside statutes and hate-crimes laws. Defending his record on the rights of the disabled, he said he took the case of a blind woman seeking entry to an Ohio medical school.
But Democrats argued that he demonstrated his hostility to the federal government in writings and other personal statements, not just in legal briefs. They questioned whether he could separate those views from his decision-making as a judge. "You're not just a lawyer who's chosen to present cases," Schumer said. "You have been a passionate advocate for this point of view."