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Senate Approves Brown

Times Staff Writer

The Senate voted Wednesday to confirm California jurist Janice Rogers Brown to a seat on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a position that could place her on President Bush’s short list of potential Supreme Court nominees.

Brown -- praised by Republicans for judicial restraint and denounced by Democrats as a conservative ideologue -- was confirmed by a vote of 56 to 43. One Democrat crossed party lines to support the confirmation.

Brown’s confirmation will give Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger his first opportunity to appoint a justice to the seven-member California Supreme Court, which has the final word on cases involving the state’s laws and constitution. Republicans hold six of the court’s seats, and Brown is generally considered the most conservative of the justices.

In a statement issued shortly after Wednesday’s Senate vote, Schwarzenegger said he had asked his staff to seek qualified candidates for the position. “I look forward to appointing someone in as timely a manner as possible,” he said.

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Predicting what sort of justice Schwarzenegger would appoint is difficult. He has appointed about 60 judges to lower courts, and those have covered an unusually broad political spectrum. Although the governor is a Republican, about a third of his appointees have been Democrats, some with reputations as liberals.

The confirmation process for Brown, a justice on the California Supreme Court, stretched over nearly two years and came to symbolize two fiercely opposing forces in Washington: the president’s determination to curb what conservatives see as the federal judiciary’s intrusion into social issues and the Democrats’ determination to resist him.

Bush praised the Senate vote in a brief statement, describing Brown as “a brilliant and fair-minded jurist who is committed to the rule of law.” Brown, the first African American woman to sit on the state Supreme Court, will become the second to sit on the D.C. circuit court.

California’s two senators -- Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats -- opposed Brown’s elevation to the federal bench. Before Bush came to office, the Senate traditionally considered opposition by home-state senators sufficient to block a nominee.

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“This may be the first such Senate confirmation over the opposition of both home-state senators in the history of the United States Senate,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Initially nominated to the federal bench in July 2003, Brown was one of 10 appellate court candidates whom Democrats blocked during Bush’s first term, describing them as “extremists.” Unlike previous presidents, who often let controversial nominations lapse, Bush took the unusual step of renominating seven of the 10, including Brown, earlier this year.

During the Senate debate, Republicans described Brown as a judge who displayed restraint in applying the law. But Democrats said she was a conservative activist who had infused her court rulings with personal political views.

“Whether one is from the left or the right, this nominee should be rejected,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D- Nev.) said before the vote. “We should reject all nominees who twist the law to their own ideological bent.”

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Because it considers cases that involve the government and examines federal issues, the District of Columbia appellate court is considered the second-highest in the country and is frequently a judicial steppingstone to the Supreme Court. Of the high court’s nine justices, three -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- were elevated from the D.C. court.

Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, an advocacy group that promotes the president’s conservative judicial nominees, said of Brown: “There’s no doubt she’ll be on any future Republican short list for the Supreme Court, as a conservative African American woman.

“It’s the very knowledge of this that explains why she has been opposed with such fervor by the left.”

Brown -- who has served on the California Supreme Court since 1996 -- was the second of three judges whose filibusters came to an end as a result of a pact between a group of moderate Republicans and Democrats last month. The first was former Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen, who was sworn in this week to the federal court of appeals in New Orleans.

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The third is expected to be former Alabama Atty. Gen. William H. Pryor Jr., whose confirmation vote for a seat on the appellate court in Atlanta is scheduled for today, along with two noncontroversial nominees to the federal appeals court in Cincinnati. The Democratic filibuster of Pryor came to an end Wednesday, when the Senate voted 67 to 32 to cut off debate on his confirmation.

“We’re finally back in gear, getting up-or-down votes, fulfilling our constitutional responsibility for advice and consent,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). “By the end of the day tomorrow, we should have three more up-or-down votes.... I believe we’ve broken the impasse.”

The only Democrat to vote for Brown was Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a conservative who often votes with Republicans. One senator, James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), was absent.

During the debate over Brown’s confirmation, Republicans praised her rise from humble origins and accused Democrats of unfairly disparaging her legal rulings.

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“She has lived the American dream and she’s lived it well,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “She didn’t just complain about her status. She worked and she tried to get an education and she applied herself.... I really do believe that most of the opposition to her has been just simply the fact that she is an African American conservative woman.”

Brown’s race and gender were a central focus for supporters and opponents. Her confirmation was opposed by the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members in the House marched to the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol in advance of the vote to urge that she be rejected.

During the debate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the only African American member of the Senate, criticized Republicans for lauding Brown’s minority status while overlooking what he saw as weaknesses in her record.

“Just as it would be cynical and offensive that Judge Rogers Brown be vilified simply for being a black conservative, it’s equally offensive and cynical to suggest that somehow she should get a pass for her outlandish views simply because she’s a black woman,” he said.

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Brown, 56, was born into a sharecropper’s family in Alabama, but her father made a career in the Air Force, eventually settling the family in Sacramento. She worked as a telephone operator to put herself through college at Cal State Sacramento and law school at UCLA.

She served as legal affairs advisor to Gov. Pete Wilson, who appointed her to the state Supreme Court from the state Court of Appeal despite two “unqualified” ratings from the state bar committee. That committee said she inserted her political views into her decisions, but legal scholars have since disputed that view, praising her intellect and writing style.


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