Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Both the Senate and White House have risen from an all-year slumber that ignored their issue of judicial confirmations until now. Last Thursday night, the Senate unexpectedly confirmed four judges, on a voice vote after no debate. On Tuesday, another appeals judge was confirmed, 67 to 30, after token debate. Without fanfare, the White House suddenly poured out 13 judicial nominations. But, from the Republican standpoint in 2006 midterm elections, it looks like too little, too late.

On June 16, six conservative Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee had sent President Bush a private letter protesting the slow pace of judicial confirmations. They noted an unusually high number of judicial vacancies for the sixth year of a presidency, including nine on the circuit courts, with no nominations made over a two-month span early this year. Pleading with the president, the senators said "the fast-approaching November elections make it imperative that the Senate confirms as many strong nominees as possible in the limited time remaining in the 109th Congress."

Bush did not answer the senators. Coincidentally or not, however, the president sent up the 13 nominations -- including six circuit judges -- between June 28 and July 13. Still, the president has not submitted a name for five vacancies on circuit seats and 14 empty district seats. This failure is inexplicable considering how the collapse of the Democratic obstruction campaign contributed to 2004 GOP election victories. Holding a weak hand in 2006, the Republicans are discarding a rare trump card.

Justice Department officials have quietly passed word that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist advised it was too late in the year for new nominees. When I checked, Frist unequivocally denied that. Perhaps the Justice officials misunderstood Frist aides who have argued that if the White House dawdled, there would be no time for confirmation.

Nevertheless, Frist indisputably put judicial confirmation on the back burner. Although the number of judges confirmed in this Congress is extraordinarily low, Frist has sounded like Democratic predecessor Tom Daschle in issuing statements boasting of the number of judges confirmed under his watch. The party leadership has scheduled no floor debate time on judges between now and the November elections. No debate, no campaign issue.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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