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Key Panel Expected To Approve Pickering

Confirmation To Circuit Court Of Appeals By Full Senate Seen As Iffy

The Clarion-Ledger
October 2, 2003
Ana Radelat

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 "no."

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 senators.

Some fence-sitters include Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Arkansas' two Democratic senators, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor.

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 influence him.

"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.

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