Bypassing Congress, president appoints Pryor to appeals court

Alabama attorney general drew Democratic ire for views on abortion ruling

February 21, 2004|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - President Bush appointed a second controversial judicial nominee yesterday - Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor Jr. - to the federal bench by using powers that circumvent the Senate confirmation process, aggravating a fight with Democratic lawmakers over the White House's court candidates.

Frustrated by Democratic-led filibusters that have blocked the confirmation of some of his nominees, Bush used his authority to make an appointment when Congress is in recess. He placed Pryor on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta until the end of 2005.

The president's end-run rankled Democratic lawmakers, who accused him of making the appointment to score political points with his conservative base.

The action came as lawmakers were in recess for just over a week for the Presidents Day holiday. The Senate goes back into session Monday.

Last month, Bush appointed Mississippi Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans until the end of this year.

The White House has signaled that more such appointments - which presidents of both parties have employed in the past - might be in the offing during future congressional recesses.

Bush said in a statement yesterday that the action was necessary because "a minority of Democratic senators" have used "unprecedented obstructionist tactics" to prevent confirmation votes on Pryor and other judicial nominees.

"Their tactics are inconsistent with the Senate's constitutional responsibility and are hurting our judicial system," he said.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the appointment a "flagrant abuse of presidential power."

"What will the president try next - a recess appointment when the Senate is in recess for a weekend?" Kennedy asked.

Political analysts suggested the maneuver was designed to help Bush repair his standing with conservative supporters, who have expressed displeasure with the growing level of federal spending - including the higher-than-expected cost for the Medicare prescription drug benefit signed into law by the president.

"The administration has clearly made judgeships an election issue, both at the presidential and Senate levels," said Elliot E. Slotnick, a political scientist at Ohio State University who has studied judicial nominations.

"Bush is starting to see just how difficult a re-election he faces," added Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "In order to win, he must keep his party base energized."

Pryor's appointment, Sabato said, also will be popular with conservatives because "Bush is sticking it to Senate Democrats - the group most hated by the GOP right."

Pryor, 41, was nominated to the 11th Circuit post by Bush in April. In July, he fell seven votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

Only two Democrats - Sens. Zell Miller of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska - joined all 51 Republicans in voting to break the filibuster.

Democrats have accused Bush of trying to tilt the federal courts to the right and said they are doing nothing different from what Republicans did when a Democrat occupied the White House.

Critics have attacked Pryor as a conservative activist who opposes abortion rights and has described the Roe vs. Wade ruling that legalized abortion as "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history."

Yesterday, Bush said that Pryor's record "demonstrates his devotion to the rule of law and to treating all people equally under the law."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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