The Senate yesterday confirmed three more appellate court nominees who had long been stymied by Democratic filibusters, giving President Bush another victory from a bipartisan accord that averted a partisan showdown over judicial appointments.
Two of the nominees passed unanimously, but Democrats fiercely contested the third, former Alabama attorney general William H. Pryor Jr. Three Republicans voted against him in a rare break with their party's president.
The Senate voted 53 to 45 to confirm Pryor for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Pryor, 43, has served on the court since early last year thanks to Bush's recess appointment, but he would have been forced off the bench this year had the Senate not acted.
Republicans Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) voted against Pryor. Two Democrats, Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.), voted for him. Sens. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) did not vote.
Liberals have denounced Pryor's opposition to abortion and his criticisms of the Voting Rights Act and the Supreme Court's death penalty rulings. But Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Pryor "has an outstanding record on civil rights" and added that "those who criticize Judge Pryor's record have not examined it with the care and respect" it deserves.
Pryor joins Priscilla R. Owen of Texas and Janice Rogers Brown of California as newly confirmed appellate court nominees who were championed by conservatives but strenuously opposed by liberals. They were among 10 nominees filibustered in Bush's first term in a battle over the federal judiciary that grew increasingly bitter after Bush's reelection.
Last month, seven Democratic senators and seven Republicans agreed to a deal that cleared the path for Pryor, Owen and Brown. The GOP signers in return agreed to scuttle Frist's threat to change Senate rules to ban judicial filibusters. Many senators say the accord's toughest test will come when the Supreme Court has its first vacancy in more than a decade.
The Senate yesterday confirmed Richard A. Griffin and David W. McKeague, both of Michigan, to the 6th Circuit appeals court. Griffin was confirmed 95 to 0 and McKeague 96 to 0. They were among the 10 filibustered nominees from Bush's first term. Democrats' objections to them had focused on GOP stalling tactics that prevented confirmation votes for several of President Bill Clinton's nominees from Michigan.
The 14 Senate negotiators, who signed a two-page agreement last month, have said two other contested appellate court nominees -- William G. Myers III of Idaho and Henry W. Saad of Michigan -- will remain blocked. That is relatively small consolation, some Democrats said yesterday. "It is bitter medicine," Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) said of the confirmations of Pryor, Brown and Owen. "I'm not happy with it."
Collins said in a statement that she was worried about Pryor's temperament and "respect for the judicial system." She noted that he once said of a Supreme Court death penalty ruling, "This issue should not be decided by nine octogenarian lawyers."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said Pryor "has argued that the federal courts should cut back on the protections of important and well-supported federal laws including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Clean Water Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act." Leahy added: "He has repudiated decades of legal precedents that permitted individuals to sue states to prevent violations of federal civil rights regulations."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State called Pryor's confirmation "another victory" for the Bush administration's "crusade to pack the federal courts with extremists."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said: "Those who know Bill Pryor paint a very consistent picture, and it's not the distorted caricature portrayed by left-wing extremists. He is a man who cares deeply about what is right, and who has the character to do what is right, no matter the political cost. Judge Pryor has demonstrated that he will never go down the politicized road of judicial activism."
After a full week on judges, Frist said, the Senate will turn to an energy bill and the contested nomination of John R. Bolton to be U.N. ambassador. "I'm confident he will be confirmed," possibly early next week, Frist told reporters. Democrats said they will continue to filibuster Bolton until the administration provides documents related to his work at the State Department.