WASHINGTON - With a key panel poised today to approve Judge
Charles Pickering's nomination to an appellate court, attention
has shifted to whether the full Senate will confirm him.
On a party-line vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected
to approve Pickering's nomination to the New Orleans-based
5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. All 10 Republicans on the
committee are expected to vote for Pickering, a federal judge
from Hattiesburg; all nine Democrats are expected to vote
Then the road to confirmation will become rockier.
Most Democrats oppose Pickering's nomination, saying he is
too closely linked to Mississippi's segregationist past and
used poor judgment in seeking to reduce a jail sentence for
a cross burner. Pickering's nomination was rejected last year
when the panel was in Democratic hands.
Democrats are expected to try to keep the nomination from
coming to a vote through extended debate known as a filibuster.
With 51 members, the GOP holds a slim majority in the Senate.
But 60 votes are needed to end a filibuster, so Republicans
are reaching out to moderate Democrats, especially in the
South, to join them.
Sen. Jim Jeffords, an independent from Vermont who usually
votes with Democrats, said he would back Pickering's nomination.
So did Democratic Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana, Zell Miller
of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
That leaves the Republicans five votes short. Sen. Fritz Hollings,
D-S.C., who last year said he would support Pickering, now
says he's undecided. So do a handful of other Democratic senators.
"I have not made a decision yet," said Sen. Mary
Landrieu, D-La. "There is a lot of concern about this
nominee, and I'm still taking it under advisement."
Landrieu wants to meet with Pickering before making her decision,
said Lindsay Ellen-Bogen, the senator's press secretary.
The judge won't attend today's committee vote, but his son,
Rep. Chip Pickering, R-3rd District, said Charles Pickering
is willing to come to Washington afterward to help sway undecided
Some fence-sitters include Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and
Arkansas' two Democratic senators, Blanche Lincoln and Mark
Chip Pickering said Wednesday he knew of other undecided Democrats
but would not reveal their names to avoid placing "undue
pressure on the individuals."
Some Charles Pickering supporters - among them state Rep.
Philip West, chairman of the Mississippi Legislative Black
Caucus - plan to help Chip Pickering lobby undecided senators
by attending today's committee vote.
West, D-Natchez, and the Rev. Ed King, a civil rights activist,
are among those scheduled to join Senate Judiciary Committee
Chairman Orrin Hatch and Sen. Trent Lott at a 12:30 p.m. Capitol
Hill news conference today in support of the judge.
Meanwhile, Charles Pickering's opponents continued their campaign
Wednesday to bury the nomination.
The Community Rights Council, a public-interest law firm that
focuses on environmental issues, said seven of the nearly
two dozen lawyers who wrote letters of support for Pickering
had cases before the judge when they penned their letters.
Seventeen of the letters were faxed to the committee from
the judge's chambers.
"It's a plain violation of judicial ethics to have solicited,
reviewed and submitted to the Judiciary Committee letters
of support from lawyers with matters pending before him,"
said Douglas Kendall, executive director of the law firm.
Pickering could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
One lawyer who wrote a letter in support of the nomination,
Leonard Melvin of Laurel, had four cases before the judge.
But he said Pickering, whom he's known for 45 years, didn't
"He's ruled against me, and he's ruled for me,"
Melvin said. "It was my idea to send the letter, and
I'd do it again."
Melvin also said the judge is his Sunday school teacher.
According to the Community Rights Council, other Mississippi
lawyers with business before Pickering when they wrote their
letters of support are Raymond Brown of Pascagoula; Alex Alston
of Jackson; and Frank Montague, William Graham, Michael McMahan
and William H. Jones of Hattiesburg.
Chip Pickering said the lawyers were motivated by their wish
to correct "false allegations and distortions of my father's
record" from dozens of liberal-leaning interest groups
that oppose the nomination.
"Many of them responded after hearing and seeing reports
about the false allegations," Chip Pickering said.
Charles Pickering was first nominated on May 25, 2001, to
the court that hears appeals from Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.