GOP set to push judicial nominee

State's 2 senators firm in opposition to Va. man

Seat traditionally goes to Md.

Sarbanes, Mikulski due any blame, Steele charges

November 05, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As they prepare a push to call attention to the Democrats' campaign to block President Bush's judicial nominees, Senate Republicans plan to move ahead on the nomination of Claude A. Allen of Virginia, Bush's choice for a federal appeals court seat that has traditionally gone to a Marylander.

The top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, said yesterday that he wants a committee vote soon on Allen's nomination, and top Republican officials expect it to be scheduled for next week.

But Democrats on the committee are all but certain to object to advancing Allen's nomination - which has been vehemently opposed by Maryland's two Democratic senators - and thereby delay it for an additional week.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, an article yesterday in The Sun incorrectly stated that Republican senators, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele of Maryland and other prominent black leaders appeared Tuesday at a Capitol Hill news conference to highlight Democratic efforts to block the nomination of Claude A. Allen to a federal appellate court seat. In fact, the news conference was held to discuss another federal circuit court nominee, Janice Rogers Brown. The Sun regrets the error.

That could leave Republicans with little or no time to push Allen's nomination to the Senate floor this year. Congressional leaders plan to adjourn before Thanksgiving, although that deadline could slip.

The disputed seat is on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which is based in Richmond, Va. The 15-member appeals court covers Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes say the seat, which became vacant in 2000 with the death of Judge Francis D. Murnaghan Jr. of Baltimore, rightfully belongs to Maryland. They have accused Bush of nominating someone from Virginia, which is represented in the Senate by two Republicans, as a way to cut them out of the process.

Sarbanes said yesterday that he "absolutely" intends to follow through on a vow he made last week to filibuster Allen's nomination - as Democrats have done with three other Bush judicial choices - if it survives a committee vote and reaches the full Senate.

In the meantime, Hatch said he is looking for ways to ensure that even if Allen's nomination is approved by the Senate, Maryland will not lose one of its seats on the appeals court. One option, he said, would be for Congress to pass a law to add another slot to the 4th Circuit.

Lt. governor on the Hill

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele appeared with Hatch and a handful of prominent black conservatives yesterday at a Capitol Hill news conference to call on Democrats to stop blocking Bush's judicial picks. Steele said he and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would work with Senate Republicans to make sure that the state retains three seats on the court.

But Steele charged that Mikulski and Sarbanes had jeopardized the state's chances of keeping the court seat by having earlier rejected a Maryland candidate, Peter D. Keisler, who was proposed in 2001 by Bush.

"We will continue to work with [Hatch] and our state's senators to ensure that we get a seat, but the reality is this: When you play politics with the judicial process, you get burned, and this is an example of being burned," Steele said. "Now we have people running around saying, `Oh, the Maryland seat is lost.' Well, it wouldn't have been if you had accepted and didn't play politics with this very qualified judicial nominee."

Keisler, a conservative Washington lawyer who lives in Bethesda, had supporters who attested to his high legal credentials. But Mikulski and Sarbanes argued that Keisler, who is not a member of the Maryland bar, was not qualified to represent their state on the 4th Circuit, had no ties with the state's legal profession and did not follow in what they say has been a rich tradition of distinguished Marylanders on the court.

Last year, Keisler was named to a top post in the Justice Department.

"Do the governor and the lieutenant governor now say we should recommend people to go on the bench who are not even members of the Maryland bar?" Sarbanes asked yesterday.

"The logic of that is that there are no standards of quality that apply to the Maryland seat," he said. "Are they saying that anyone they present we should take? What does that do to the `advise and consent' function, and what does that do to Maryland's stellar performance, in terms of the quality of people that have gone on the 4th Circuit in Maryland?"

Jervis S. Finney, Ehrlich's chief legal counsel, said it would be difficult for the governor to take part in any compromise on the 4th Circuit seat, in light of "the hard partisan political line" taken by Sarbanes and Mikulski, and by other Senate Democrats who are using procedural tactics to block Bush's judicial choices, many of whom they say are too conservative.

"The governor would certainly seek the three Maryland judges in an admirable world, but we don't have that admirable world now," Finney said yesterday. "If you've got a battle going on in Washington, where it's just total warfare, the governor of Maryland is not going to feel that he can solve all the nationwide issues."

Finney said Ehrlich might consider working with the two senators to advance a Marylander for the court seat if they dropped their support for Democratic filibusters.

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