WASHINGTON -- A divided Senate Judiciary Committee approved President Bush’s choice of a Pennsylvania judge for a U.S. Court of Appeals seat Thursday, as three Democrats broke ranks to vote in favor of the nomination.
U.S. District Judge D. Brooks Smith, 50, was appointed to the federal bench by President Reagan. He later made speeches to conservative groups disputing Congress’ power to pass laws such as the Violence Against Women Act, which allowed victims of sexual assaults to sue their attackers.
He also drew the ire of women’s rights groups and several senators because he maintained his membership in an upscale, all-male fishing and hunting club.
In 1988, when he was seeking confirmation for a lifetime seat as a federal judge, Smith told the Judiciary Committee he would quit the Spruce Creek Rod and Gun Club if it refused to open its doors to women. He did not do so until 1999, when a vacant seat came open on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Despite his sworn statement to this committee, he did not resign for 11 years,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who opposed the nomination. “It would be a bad precedent if we ignored this.”
But Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said the attacks on Smith were unfair and based on exaggerated claims. “He has a reputation of the highest caliber. And he was rated well-qualified” by the American Bar Assn., said Specter, who pointed out that he had often voted for nominees of President Clinton who were opposed by other Republicans.
The Pennsylvania senator also questioned why the judge should have been pressed to drop out of the Spruce Creek club. “This is a sporting club. There was no business aspect to it,” Specter said.
In the end, the key vote was cast by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democrat from Delaware.
“This nomination is a close call for me. I would like to vote against this guy because I don’t agree with his philosophy,” Biden said. However, after consulting lawyers and judges in Pennsylvania, Biden said he was persuaded to vote in favor of the nominee.
“I was told this guy is honest, and he’s not an ideologue,” he said.
When the votes were counted, Sens. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.), who was on the Senate floor during the committee debate, also voted to confirm Smith.
Edwards, who is considering a run for the presidency in 2004, played a key role in the defeat in March of Judge Charles W. Pickering, Bush’s nominee to the U.S. appeals court in New Orleans. In sharp questioning, Edwards showed the judge had violated code of conduct to arrange a more lenient sentence for a convicted cross burner.
Edwards said he voted for Smith because he was convinced the judge was “willing to put personal views aside and apply the law.” His membership in the all-male club was a “serious error,” he added, but not reason enough to block the nomination.
All nine Republicans voted for Smith, making the final tally 12-7 in favor of confirmation. If he wins approval from the full Senate, which is likely, Smith will join the 3rd Circuit court, which sits in Philadelphia and hears appeals in federal cases from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Currently, the circuit court’s 11 judges include six Democratic appointees and five Republicans.
Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, called the vote “extremely disappointing.”
“Obviously, 12 members of the committee were not offended by the fact that Judge Smith violated the code of conduct by continuing to belong to a club that discriminates against women, or by the fact that he broke a promise he made to the committee,” Neas said.