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.