WASHINGTON -- President Bush suffered a political defeat yesterday when the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected his nomination of Judge Kenneth Ryskamp of Miami to a seat on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
On a party-line, 8-6 vote, the panel bowed to critics who charged Judge Ryskamp with a pattern of insensitive behavior toward minorities, voting against the nomination and, on a 7-7 tie, refusing to send Judge Ryskamp's name on to the full Senate without recommendation.
The latter action effectively removed the nominee from consideration. Judge Ryskamp was thus the first of Mr. Bush's 77 judicial nominees to be rejected by the Senate.
"The constitutional process has run its course, and I accept the decision of the committee," Judge Ryskamp said in a statement released by his office in Miami, where he was presiding over a drug trial. "The charges against me are wholly false and repugnant to all that I stand for."
The outcome seems certain to fuel accusations that the Bush administration has been insufficiently sympathetic to civil rights concerns.
For the past year, White House officials have battled accusations that Judge Ryskamp tacitly condoned discriminatory behavior through membership in a country club with a reputation for excluding blacks and Jews. At the same time, those officials have battled Democrats on Capitol Hill over a civil rights bill they charge would force employers to institute hiring quotas.
The lineup of forces on both issues was roughly identical. Judge Ryskamp was opposed by a coalition of nearly 50 civil rights, Hispanic and women's organizations, nearly all of whom support the Democratic civil rights bill opposed by Mr. Bush.
After Judge Ryskamp's rejection, several opponents of the nomination called on the president to show greater concern for the plight of minorities and women by changing his stance on the civil rights bill.
Although many members of the legal community testified on behalf of Judge Ryskamp's nomination, panel Democrats cited his longtime membership in the private club, as well as remarks made from the bench, as sufficient grounds for his rejection.
Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., questioned why Judge Ryskamp failed to resign from the Riviera Country Club until the eve of his confirmation hearing last month. Citing the judge's claim that he did not know of the club's reputation, Mr. Biden said, "It surely indicates the fellow is not very much in tune with the community and the society in which he lives."
Other Democrats echoed Mr. Biden's belief that Judge Ryskamp may be a "fine man," but one insufficiently attuned to the realities of a multiracial society.
Mr. Biden also suggested that Judge Ryskamp's rulings on a series of civil rights suits, later reversed by the 11th Circuit Court to which he had been nominated, as well as remarks in a police brutality case, indicated a lack of judicial temperament.
Indeed, Judge Ryskamp's attempts to explain his actions apparently exacerbated doubts about his fitness to serve. In testimony before the Senate panel, he called it an "irony" that a convicted criminal could sue the police for abuse -- a right that, he added, "may foster crime." Mr. Biden was later said to be "astounded" by Judge Ryskamp's opinion.
Committee Republicans ascribed partisan motives to the Democrats' action.
In a table-thumping speech, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, characterized Judge Ryskamp as a "political innocent" victimized by "liberal special interests" who sought to take over the Senate's judicial confirmation process. Those groups, he said, sought to preserve a liberal majority on the 11th Circuit and so sought to destroy Judge Ryskamp's candidacy.
If Judge Ryskamp were a liberal, conservative Senator Hatch said, his voice cracking in anger, "I wouldn't do that to a man of this quality. I just wouldn't, and I'm getting tired of it."