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Bush Defends Federal Court Nominee
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS . NY Times . 06 march 2002

President Bush today is defending his federal court nominee, Charles Pickering, to Senate Democrats.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush, defending an embattled federal court nominee, accused Senate Democrats on Wednesday of ``playing politics'' with the choice as his spokesman said the civil rights record of some senators could come into play during Charles Pickering's nomination fight.

Turning aside Democratic criticism about Pickering's civil rights record, Bush waved his arms in disgust and said, ``All of these allegations have been looked at. He has been confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate in the past.''

Pickering and Bush were joined in the Oval Office by the judge's supporters, including Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore and several Democratic elected officials. Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, denounced ``Yankees up here'' and liberals fighting Pickering's nomination.

The federal appeal court nomination is all but dead in the Senate. Bush launched the last-minute political offensive to avoid criticism that he did not do enough on Pickering's behalf, and to signal to the Senate that he won't roll over on his judicial nominees.

The fight over Pickering's nomination to the federal appeals court is viewed by the White House and Democratic foes as a dress rehearsal for the clash that would likely ensue if a Supreme Court justice retires and Bush is allowed to fill a vacancy on the high court.

Pickering, currently a federal district judge, has faced criticism from women's, civil rights and liberal groups -- some of the same factions likely to line up against a Bush pick to the Supreme Court.

The Democratic Party, in opposing the nomination, said in a recent news release that Pickering wrote an article in May 1959 suggesting how a loophole in Mississippi's statute banning interracial marriage could be corrected to allow the state to criminally prosecute anyone whose spouse is of a different race.

Bush and Pickering refused to address that and other specific allegations about Pickering's record.

``I think the country is tired of people playing politics all the time in Washington,'' Bush said in a brief question-and-answer session designed to bolster the nomination in advance on a Senate committee vote Thursday. ``I believe they are holding this man's nomination up for political purposes.''

Afterward, Evers shrugged off criticism of Pickering's actions in the 1950s and 1960s. ``Whatever he was then, he's not that now,'' Evers said.

Said Moore, the state's attorney general: ``You won't see elected officials stand up for a man if he's a racist.''

Earlier, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer dismissed questions about Pickering's civil rights record.

``You're referring to something that took place over 40 years ago when he was a law student. If actions taken by people 40 years ago were the criteria, there'd be some senators who are voting on this nomination whose very history would come into play,'' Fleischer said. ``So I think what you've seen is a nation that has changed.''

He refused to single out any senator. Ironically, one of the Republicans who support Pickering's nomination is Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who ran for president as a segregationist in 1948. In addition, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was a member of the Ku Klux Klan briefly before he came to Congress in the 1950s, and Byrd has been a strong supporter of civil rights.

Thurmond is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Byrd is not. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a member of the panel, was rejected for the federal court bench in 1986 because of racially tinged remarks attributed to him.

All 10 Democrats on the committee say they will vote against the nomination Thursday, enough to keep Bush's choice off the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Wednesday the nomination won't go to the floor unless the panel approves it.

Bush wants to elevate Pickering to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which serves Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana. Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-9 on the Judiciary Committee, which is expected to vote on the nomination Thursday.

Pickering, a former Mississippi prosecutor and lawmaker, easily won Senate confirmation in 1990 as a U.S. District Court judge.

At least two Senate Democrats, Sens. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Zell Miller of Georgia, have indicated they might vote for Pickering, enough to confirm his nomination in the 50-49 Senate, if his nomination makes it to the floor.