Senate approves appointee to federal claims
July 10, 2003
The Senate yesterday placed Victor J. Wolski
on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims over opposition from
numerous environmental groups who said his ideological leanings
threaten enforcement of key environmental protections under
cases he will decide. Wolski, a 40-year-old attorney and
former counsel for the Pacific Legal Foundation, was confirmed
on a 53-43 vote, with three Democrats voting for the nominee
and no Republicans voting against. The Sacramento, Calif.-based
Pacific Legal Foundation is one of the nation's most active
litigators against government regulations, particularly
those dealing with endangered species, Western water rights
and other environmental issues.
The Court of Federal Claims, created in 1982 under the Reagan
administration, is of particular interest to property rights
groups and environmentalists because it handles many of
the nation's high-profile takings cases. A property taking
refers to the government imposing strict limits on private
landowners, including the stripping of development rights,
to meet a federal statute or regulation.
Last month, 13 environmental groups -- including the Sierra
Club, the Endangered Species Coalition and Friends of the
Earth -- sent a letter to the Senate arguing against Wolski's
confirmation. "Mr. Wolski is a self-described ideologue
on the very property rights issues that he would decide
as a [Court of Federal Claims] judge," the groups wrote.
Doug Kendall, director of the nonprofit Community Rights
Counsel, said yesterday that Wolski has "spent the
largest part of his legal career challenging environmental
protections on behalf of one of the most extreme takings
or property rights groups in the country."
But Anthony Caso, vice president and general counsel for
the Pacific Legal Foundation, defended Wolski's appointment.
"I know Vic is a very bright lawyer with a very high
regard for the Constitution," Caso said. "He was
always guided first by what he thought the Constitution
required and what it meant rather than a particular result."
Wolski will serve a 15-year term, after which he becomes
eligible for a lifetime position as a senior judge. Currently
13 of the court's 24 members are senior judges.
Conservation groups have long worried that successful takings
lawsuits brought by landowners could force state and federal
governments to pay private individuals and companies to
meet environmental regulations (Greenwire <http://www.eenews.net/Greenwire/searcharchive/test_search-display.cgi?q
Feb. 27, 2002). "The Federal Claims Court has exclusive
authority to hear most claims brought by corporations seeking
money simply for complying with environmental standards,"
Kendall said. "In other words, it has exclusive jurisdiction
over big-dollar takings claims against the federal government,
giving it the power to affect the enforcement of many federal
environmental standards." In addition to the Wolski
confirmation, the Senate expanded the size of the Federal
Claims court by three judges yesterday. The new seats will
be filled by Mary Ellen Coster Williams, Susan Braden and
Charles Lettow, all of whom were confirmed on a voice vote.
But one environmental attorney, Glenn Sugameli of Earthjustice,
raised questions about whether the court needed to be larger.
"At the very least, the Senate should have considered
whether the [court] needs more judges -- each of whom cost
the taxpayers an average of $1 million a year," he
Frist forces nomination
Wolski's confirmation represented an example of a broader
effort by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to
break Democratic opposition to President Bush's judicial
nominees. Frist invoked cloture to force a vote on Wolski's
nomination. Last month, the Senate Rules and Administration
Committee voted 10-0 to approve a measure intended to revise
the confirmation process for judicial nominees, some of
whom have been blocked by Democrats and opposed by a handful
of national environmental groups. The proposal <http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d108:s.res.00138:>,
put forth in May, would amend Senate Rule XXII <http://rules.senate.gov/senaterules/rule22.htm>
to gradually reduce the number of votes necessary to overcome
filibusters on judicial confirmations. Under Frist's proposal,
60 votes would be required to stop a filibuster on the first
try, 57 on the second, 54 on the third and 51 on the fourth.
Current rules require 60 votes to end debate. No floor vote
has been scheduled for the resolution. Republicans have
tried six times since March to end the Democratic filibuster
of Miguel Estrada's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals
for the District of Columbia and have failed twice to end
the more recent filibuster of Texas Judge Priscilla Owen
to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Democrats argue
that, despite the recent filibusters, the process is fair,
pointing to the 132 nominees who have been confirmed since
Bush took office. National environmental groups have mounted
campaigns to block several of Bush's appeals court nominees,
including Owen, Estrada and former Ohio Solicitor General
Jeffrey Sutton (R), appointed in April to the 6th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals.
Pryor nomination heads for vote
The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, intends to vote
next week on the nomination of Alabama Attorney General
William H. Pryor (R) to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals,
Viewed as a strict constructionist on constitutional matters,
Pryor has been outspoken about his views on a issues ranging
from separation of church and state to abortion rights to
environmental policy, including federal authority over wetlands
and enforcement of clean air standards for states that fail
to force emissions reductions from industrial facilities
and other sources.