WASHINGTON - The battle over President Bush's judicial choices
moved into the environmental arena for the first time on Thursday
when the Senate Judiciary Committee took up the nomination
of a longtime lobbyist for ranching and mining interests who
has been a leading critic of environmentalists.
The nomination, of William G. Myers III to a seat on the federal
appeals court covering nine Western states, presents the starkest
example yet in the debate over whether someone who has spent
a career vigorously advocating a particular ideological viewpoint
about the law is an appropriate candidate to be a federal
Democrats on the committee attacked Mr. Myers for speeches
over the years in which he often used the strong language
of large ranchers and other Western landowners who maintain
that they suffer oppression at the hands of federal environmental
regulators. Mr. Myers once said, for example, that environmental
regulations were akin to King George's tyranny over the American
Mr. Myers responded to the criticism in the same manner as
other Bush judicial nominees with track records of staunch
conservatism: he said the positions he had taken were not
relevant to the question of his qualifications to be a judge.
Those were views he expressed as an advocate, he said, and
"would not play any role" in his actions on the
Senator Larry E. Craig, the Idaho Republican who conducted
the hearing, said Mr. Myers's critics "purposely confuse
the roles of a lawyer and a judge."
But Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts,
said the nominee was especially unsuitable because "he
has dedicated most of his career to advocating for mining
and cattle industry interests that opposed laws protecting
Mr. Myers, 48, is currently the Interior Department's solicitor,
its chief lawyer. In that role, which he assumed in 2001,
he once drafted a ruling that upheld a regulatory change allowing
a foreign-owned gold mine to be established on Indian land
in California. A federal judge later ruled that Mr. Myers's
opinion misconstrued the "clear mandate" of a federal
law that, the judge said, was aimed at preventing degradation
of land. The regulations that Mr. Myers upheld, the judge
wrote, typically "prioritize the interests of miners,
who seek to conduct these mining operations over the interests
of persons such as plaintiffs," who as environmentalists
"seek to conserve and protect the public lands."
Mr. Myers, who has little courtroom experience, received a
mixed rating from the American Bar Association committee that
evaluates judicial nominees. A majority of the committee rated
him qualified, and a minority not qualified. None of the committee's
15 members gave him the best of its three ratings, highly
Before joining the Interior Department, Mr. Myers served as
a lobbyist for the mining industry and, from 1993 to 1997,
was executive director of the Public Lands Council, an arm
of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
His many speeches and articles during his career are a distillation
of ideas advanced by the Western property rights movement
sometimes called the "sagebrush rebellion." At the
heart of the debate is the question of how much authority
the government has in requiring landowners to comply with
regulations that some conservatives deem as burdensome and
an illegal seizure of property.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee's
ranking Democrat, asked Mr. Myers at Thursday's hearing what
he had in mind when he compared federal environmental regulations
to British colonial tyranny. Mr. Myers said he had been speaking
only in general terms and reflecting the views of his clients.
Senator Craig said that when Mr. Myers was confirmed, he would
sit in Idaho, one of the nine Western states, along with two
territories, that make up the federal judiciary's Ninth Circuit.
The circuit court, based in San Francisco, has had a caseload
rich with cases involving the environment and property rights,
and has long been a target of conservative critics.
But few people believe that Mr. Myers will sit on the court
any time soon. Although Republicans control the Senate, their
majority is slim, allowing Democrats to use filibusters to
block nominees they find most objectionable. Mr. Myers is
widely expected to fit into that category.
So most senators and aides on the committee regard the nomination
and the hearing as being as much an election-year political
gesture by Mr. Bush as anything else.
Another indicator of the nomination's relevance to presidential
politics was that Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who
is not on the committee, issued a statement from his campaign
headquarters on Thursday opposing Mr. Myers.