On Judges, Washington Gets Ready to Rumble

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You can set your watch by it. Every time power shifts in Washington, Republicans and Democrats pat each other's backs after the dust settles with promises to be more bipartisan in conducting the public's business. And within a month they're back to partisan fighting.

After Sen. Jim Jeffords became an independent and handed control of the Senate to the Democrats, the chamber's new majority leader Tom Daschle promised to treat Republicans and the White House far better than he says they treated him. GOP leader Trent Lott, in turn, dropped a threat to block the Democrats from taking control of the Senate. It was all handshakes and grins.

But keep an eye on your watch. The two sides will cooperate in passing the education bill, because they'd already reached their compromises on the measure before Democrats took control of the Senate. Daschle next plans to bring up the Democratic patient's bill of rights measure, which Bush opposes, but the public partisan rancor there will probably stay in check because both sides realize they have to look like they're producing. But bipartisanship will quickly run out on the issue Democrats and Republicans consider one of the most critical the next four years: judicial nominees.

After eight years of Clinton appointments, George W. Bush wants to quickly pack the federal courts with as many conservative jurists as he can. Daschle has promised not to block or stall confirmations as Republicans did with many of Clinton's judicial nominees. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, insists there won't be payback for the last eight years when Republicans left many Clinton picks languishing in committee. But Leahy is quick to add, "we're not going to have a judiciary made up of ideologues on the right." Translated: W can probably expect just as rough treatment for his more conservative nominees as Clinton did with his liberal choices.

When he chaired the panel, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch tried to speed up hearings for Bush judicial nominees so Democrats wouldn't have time to collect damaging information on them and mount a counter-offensive. Leahy, who now controls the schedule, will slow it down so Democratic staffers can stockpile more ammunition on conservative nominees before their hearings. Some of Bush's picks who may be targeted:

  • Democrats have been salivating over U.S. District Court Judge Terrence W. Boyle, 55, a protégé of North Carolina conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, whom Bush has tapped for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Boyle, however, may be saved by North Carolina's other senator, Democrat John Edwards. Edwards opposes Boyle, but he's holding off blocking the nomination if he can get the White House to nominate another North Carolinian to the 4th Circuit. Edwards' favorite is state Appeals Court Judge James A. Wynn, an African-American whom Helms has blocked in the past.

  • Disability activists have been phoning Democrats on Judiciary demanding that they block Columbus, Ohio, attorney Jeffrey Sutton from taking a seat on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Sutton, who's a former Ohio solicitor, successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court last year that the Constitution limits suits against state governments for discrimination because of a disability. Liberals also accuse him of being hostile to civil rights.

  • Conservative Miguel Estrada has blue-chip credentials: a Harvard Law School degree, a Supreme Court clerkship, a stint as an assistant U.S. attorney, and now a partner in a high-powered Washington law firm. Born in Honduras, he'd also be the first Hispanic judge to reach the Appeals Court in the District of Columbia. But one of Estrada's law partners is considered a Darth Vader by the Democratic Party: Theodore B. Olson, Bush's recently confirmed solicitor general who successfully argued W's election case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The D.C. Appeals Court has also been a stepping stone to the Supreme Court for other conservative jurists, such as Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. If the 39- year-old Estrada made that leap several years later, Democrats realize he'd be on the High Court for a long time.