President Bush on Wednesday nominated the chief federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, Robert C. Bonner, to a federal district court seat and, in a move likely to spark a political battle, picked a San Francisco lawyer strongly opposed by gay rights activists for a federal judgeship in Northern California.
In the case of Bonner and San Francisco attorney Vaughn R. Walker, Bush is resubmitting Reagan Administration nominations that expired last fall in election-year logjams. He also renewed the nominations of Pamela Ann Rymer and Ferdinand F. Fernandez, both federal judges in Los Angeles, for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Fernandez would be the first Latino member of the 9th Circuit, the nation's largest federal appeals court, with jurisdiction over cases from California and nine other Western states ranging from Hawaii to Arizona.
Of the nominations, only Walker's is expected to be controversial, but the fight over it could be prolonged and become tied up in state politics. Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, who is expected to run for governor, has supported Walker. Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston has told Walker's opponents in the past that he would try to block the nominee.
Wednesday, Wilson aides predicted that the Walker nomination would be approved by the Senate. "There was a great deal of partisanship last year" because of the presidential election, and "people were looking for reasons to oppose nominations," said Wilson spokesman Bill Livingston. But gay rights activists vowed to continue the fight against Senate confirmation that they launched last year.
"It's not going to be an easy road for him," predicted Leonard Graff, legal director of the National Gay Rights Advocates in San Francisco.
"There will be some very vocal opposition to Walker's nomination," he said, adding that Cranston "will be pressed not to sign off" on the choice. Under the Senate's non-binding traditions, district court nominations are seldom approved unless both senators from the state in which the judge would sit consent to the appointment.
Cranston, who was en route to Japan, was unavailable for comment.
The controversy surrounding Walker involves actions that the 44-year-old attorney took several years ago during a legal battle between the U.S. Olympic Committee, a client of Walker's, and the San Francisco-based Gay Olympics. The Olympic Committee won a suit to prevent the gay organization from using the Olympic name. The committee then won a court order directing the gay group to pay some of the committee's attorney fees.
Walker, acting as the committee's lawyer, also filed a lien against the house of Tom Waddell, a founder of the gay games who was dying of AIDS at the time. Walker's opponents charge that he callously refused appeals to release the lien on the dying man's house. His supporters say the decision was up to the committee, not him, and that he was simply vigorously representing his client's interests.
By contrast with Walker, the other three nominations have generated minimal controversy in the past and are expected to gain routine Senate confirmation.
Rymer, 48, has been a federal district judge in Los Angeles since 1983. Reagan nominated her last year to the appeals court seat vacated when Anthony M. Kennedy was appointed to the Supreme Court. Her nomination was held up when the Senate's Democratic majority decided to hold off filling most appeals court vacancies until after the election.
A highly regarded and generally conservative judge, she was briefly considered for the high court appointment that Kennedy eventually received.
Bonner, 47, as U.S. attorney has been the chief federal prosecutor in Los Angeles since 1984. He would take Rymer's seat on the district court. Fernandez, 51, was a state judge in San Bernardino County for six years before being placed on the federal bench by former President Ronald Reagan in 1985.