President Bush, moving swiftly Tuesday to take advantage of the Republican takeover of the Senate, renominated two judges -- Charles W. Pickering Jr. of Mississippi and Priscilla R. Owen of Texas -- who were rejected last year by the Democrats.
They were among 30 judicial nominees whose names were sent back to the Senate late Tuesday.
Pickering, an ally of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), was defeated on a 10-9 party-line vote in the Judiciary Committee after it was revealed that the judge had secretly pressed federal civil rights prosecutors to allow a lesser sentence for a white man who led a cross-burning at a black couple’s home.
In the 1994 case, Pickering told prosecutors he would reverse the man’s conviction on the cross-burning charges if they did not agree to a prison sentence less than the one called for under federal sentencing guidelines. The Republicans stood by Pickering, and said he was being unfairly tarnished. In the late 1960s, Pickering had testified against a local leader of the Ku Klux Klan, supporters noted.
Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice, was defeated by the same party-line vote in the Judiciary Committee based on charges she regularly sided with big business against consumers and injured persons.
Bush’s bold move in renominating the pair was attacked immediately by Democrats and liberal activists.
“Given the encouraging rhetoric of this administration on civil rights over the last few weeks, it’s astonishing that when it’s time to match that rhetoric with real action, they nominate Charles Pickering,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Both Pickering and Owen were selected to serve on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance of Justice, called Bush’s move “a show of contempt for some of the issues that Americans care about most deeply, such as civil rights and corporate cronyism.”
But an aide to Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) praised the president for moving quickly to submit the nominations. “We have a lot of leftover work to do,” said Margarita Tapia, Hatch’s spokeswoman.
Last year, Republicans were incensed by the Judiciary Committee’s rejection of Pickering and Owen, since they believed each could have won narrow confirmation in the full Senate.
While Bush made clear he would try again with Owen, some administration lawyers questioned whether it was wise to press ahead with Pickering’s nomination after the Lott debacle. The Mississippi senator was forced to step down as the Republican leader two weeks after he praised retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1948 run for the presidency on a segregationist platform.
But Bush refused to back down.
“They would have caught hell from the right had they not renominated him,” said one Democratic staffer.
Besides Pickering and Owen, the president renominated Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl and Justice Department lawyer Jay S. Bybee to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals; North Carolina Judge Terrence Boyle to the 4th Circuit Court; and Washington lawyers Miguel Estrada and John Roberts Jr. to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.
All of them have been tagged as controversial by liberal activists, but they are likely to win approval in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she remained opposed to Kuhl for several reasons, including the fact that Kuhl, as a Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration, had argued in favor of giving charitable tax deductions to Bob Jones University in South Carolina, despite its policy of racial segregation on campus.
“It’s disappointing to me that in the light of recent events the president would nominate people for judgeships who have a troubling history on the issue of race in America,” Boxer said. “It says to me nothing has changed with the Republicans.”
Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this report.