Robert Bluey

Senate Democrats and Republicans operated in relative harmony this spring when confirming President Bush’s judicial nominees, but the nomination of Leslie Southwick to the New Orleans-based federal court of appeals has shattered that peace.

The fight over Southwick’s confirmation comes at an important time. As the White House prepares a short list of candidates for a potential Supreme Court vacancy, liberals are sharpening their battle-axes. Conservatives, meanwhile, sense a return to the days of filibusters and obstructionism that nearly brought the Senate to a nuclear showdown.

Caught in the middle is Southwick, a former Mississippi state appellate court judge who was nominated by Bush to serve on the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The seat has gone unfilled for seven years without a permanent judge, primarily because Democrats have blocked the last three nominees. As a result, it has been declared a “judicial emergency.”

But for liberals on the Senate Judiciary Committee, no emergency trumps political pandering to left-wing interest groups. When People For the American Way and the Human Rights Campaign objected to Southwick, committee libs leveled the outrageous charge that he is a racist. His nomination’s been stuck in committee ever since.

Tensions over appellate court judges last reached a boiling point in 2005 when a group of 14 senators, both Republicans and Democrats, brokered a deal to confirm a handful of nominees and avoid bringing the Senate to a halt. But with Southwick’s delay dragging on and no clear resolution in sight, there’s talk among some Republicans of bringing the Senate’s work to a screeching stop until committee liberals allow action on the nomination.

Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who strongly supports Southwick’s confirmation, said he would lead an effort to bring the Senate to a “total shutdown” if Democrats continued their obstructionism. With the hot-button issues of immigration and the Iraq War capturing the headlines on Capitol Hill these days, Lott’s biggest hurdle might be rallying enough support among his own fractured caucus.

Robert Bluey

Robert B. Bluey is director of the Center for Media & Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation and maintains a blog at