The Senate voted 51 to 46 yesterday to confirm a nomination to the U.S. District Court in Little Rock after a sharp debate over his comments about abortion, women's rights and other topics.
Six Democrats, including both Arkansas senators, backed the nomination of James Leon Holmes, offsetting five Republicans who said his conservative positions were too extreme. Holmes, a former president of Arkansas Right to Life, is the last of 25 judges to be confirmed from a group that reached the Senate floor under a recent agreement between the two parties. Senate Democrats continue to block a handful of controversial nominees to U.S. circuit courts.
Maryland's two Democratic senators and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) voted against Holmes's nomination, and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) voted for it.
Holmes, a Little Rock lawyer, has written a number of strongly worded articles and letters over the years that provided grist for his opponents. Much of the day-long debate centered on his 1980 letter backing a constitutional ban on abortion. In it, he wrote that "concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami."
Holmes later apologized for the comment, but several Democrats said it betrayed a temperament that disqualified him from a lifelong appointment to the federal bench.
"This is something you might expect out of a Neanderthal era," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said in a floor speech. "Why in heaven's name did the president nominate him?"
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Holmes's 1980 remark was "grossly incorrect." About 30,000 American girls and women become pregnant each year from rape or incest, she said. Feinstein also attacked Holmes's 1997 comments in a religious publication that a "wife is to subordinate herself to her husband." She said the nominee's remarks on abortion, women's rights and other topics "are way out of line with the mainstream of American thinking."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) defended Holmes, suggesting that he had employed "a literary device called exaggeration for effect."
Arkansas's two Democratic senators said they accepted his apologies and believed he would follow the law fairly.
The nominee "made a comment 20-plus years ago about how women who are raped don't get pregnant, which I think most would agree was inappropriate and offensive," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). "Leon has apologized for that comment, acknowledged it was wrong and said he regrets saying it. We've all said things we shouldn't and wished we hadn't said in our lives. . . . There is no question he has the necessary legal skills and intellect" to be a good judge.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) told his colleagues that "over and over and over, people in Arkansas who know him" say Holmes would be a fair, impartial judge.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said: "The fact is, regardless of any personal views, Mr. Holmes will abide by the rule of law. He understands that his personal views play no role in his duty as a judge to . . . faithfully follow the precedent of the Supreme Court and 8th Circuit."
Hatch quoted a recent letter in which Holmes said of the snowfall-in-Miami remark: "I have to acknowledge that my own rhetoric, particularly when I first became involved in the issue [of abortion] in 1980 and perhaps some years thereafter, sometimes has been unduly strident and inflammatory. The sentence about rape victims which was made in a letter to an editor in 1980 is particularly troublesome to me from a distance of 23 years later. Regardless of the merits of the issue, the articulation in that sentence reflects an insensitivity for which there is no excuse and for which I apologize."
Holmes earned a doctorate from Duke University and graduated first in his class from the University of Arkansas School of Law. An array of Arkansas individuals and organizations endorsed his nomination, with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette calling him "superbly qualified."