Choice for 4th Circuit snubs state GOP

Politics: President overreaches to the right, instead of respecting Maryland party members.

March 31, 2001

MAYBE WE OUGHT to start calling him Landslide George.

President Bush, having lost the popular vote and captured the presidency only through a narrowly decided Supreme Court ruling, hardly seems to acknowledge his tenuous claim to a mandate or earlier pledge to reach out to detractors.

Instead of broadening his appeal, he's ignoring the opposition -- on everything from his proposed tax cut to the environment -- as if there were no doubts about what the country wants or needs, no lingering questions about how far he ought to push his agenda.

And now, Landslide George is headed for Maryland.

Unhappy Republicans at the highest-level of the state party say President Bush will name Peter D. Keisler, a hard-right conservative, to succeed Francis D. Murnaghan Jr. on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Keisler lives in Bethesda, but has never practiced law in Maryland, which makes him an odd choice for a seat traditionally held by a Maryland jurist.

Mr. Bush could never be expected to appoint anyone as liberal as the late Judge Murnaghan. But he bypasses moderate-to-conservative Maryland judges and lawyers in favor of Mr. Keisler, who is virtually unknown to state Republicans and practices in Washington, D.C., where he is well regarded. He is also a member of the Pennsylvania Bar, but not that of the Free State.

What an affront to local Republican leaders, who have seldom had an opportunity to show that loyalty and hard work for the party will pay off.

Mr. Bush's choice also stands as a slap at the whole state, given Mr. Keisler's lack of experience in Maryland law and its courts. The 4th Circuit is responsible for cases appealed from federal district courts in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

It may be no more than tradition to fill appeals court seats with members of the bar in the states covered by that particular circuit. But it's custom with a solemn purpose. And it's a nobler paradigm than bare-knuckle politics, which appears the only explanation for choosing Mr. Keisler.

The apparent nominee comes with an impeccably correct political, personal and ideological pedigree. He's a graduate of Yale University, as are President Bush and his father. He was an assistant White House counsel in the administration of President George H. W. Bush. And he clerked for Robert Bork, who became a conservative martyr when he was denied a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court by liberals in the Senate and tenacious civil rights groups.

As a stalwart of the Federalist Society, Mr. Keisler represents an increasingly influential organization of extremely conservative lawyers who recently helped oust the American Bar Association from its role as screener of federal judicial nominations.

Their objectives are cloaked in benign invocations of "individual liberty, traditional values, and the rule of law," words that appear on their Web site.

But their aspirations are clearly more revolutionary.

Several society lawyers now working in the White House counsel's office are helping President Bush choose appointees to the federal judiciary.

Critics have referred to the Federalist crowd as "new fogeys" -- a youthful, blue-suited Establishment determined to network for themselves even as they try to reshape the liberal, big government orthodoxy.

With 25,000 members, a big-budget Washington office and the ear of the White House, the society would naturally look to men like Peter Keisler to fill openings on the federal bench.

Somewhat dolefully, one Maryland Democrat says Mr. Keisler may be as good a candidate as the Democrats can expect from a conservative administration.

But this does not console the GOP in Maryland.

This judgeship was the biggest plum available to Republicans here and at least one of them, former state party chairman Richard D. Bennett, hoped he might end up on federal district court as successor to a Marylander elevated to the 4th Circuit.

Former gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey -- long a Bush backer -- fumed this week over the slighting of the party she has worked hard to build.

And Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Bush loyalist, who might have expected a major role in the filling of this seat was bumped out of the way and muzzled.

But none of these protests matter, apparently. White House sources are warning Republicans here that Mr. Keisler's nomination is "unstoppable."

On the other hand, two Democrats represent Maryland in the U.S. Senate where Mr. Keisler would have to be confirmed. The views of a state's senators usually carry considerable weight in judicial nominations. It may be up to them to ensure that Landslide George's assault on Maryland does not succeed.

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