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WASHINGTON - Worried that President Bush will attack the nation's long-standing environmental protection laws through the courts, a dozen environmental groups announced Wednesday that they will for the first time scrutinize nominees to the federal bench.
"Judicial appointments are rarely thought of as an environmental issue, but they have become an environmental priority," said Buck Parker, executive director of the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund, a Washington law firm that represents environmentalists. "Citizens concerned about environmental protection
- as the vast majority of people in this country are - expect that the judges confirmed by the Senate will uphold rather than undermine the important environmental laws passed by Congress."
Joined by such groups as the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and the Endangered Species Coalition, Parker and other environmentalists have sent letters to every U.S. senator, asking them to carefully screen Bush's court nominees to determine whether they will disregard or try to rewrite environmental protection laws they don't like.
So far, the environmental groups have not come out for or against any particular judicial nominee, but they are researching the decisions and the writings of the nearly 30 nominees Bush has announced.
The president has more than 100 vacancies to fill on the federal bench.
At a Capitol Hill news conference, the environmentalists released a report titled "Hostile Environment: How Activist Judges Threaten our Air, Water and Land."
The report's authors, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Community Rights Counsel and the Alliance for Justice, studied federal court rulings over the past decade and concluded that a growing number of conservative judges - most appointed by former Presidents Bush and Reagan - have shaped a new anti-environment judicial philosophy.
Led by Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, two of Bush 's favorite justices, the judges have weakened the right of citizens to sue alleged polluters and have whittled away at laws safeguarding the nation's air and water, the report says.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., released a statement agreeing that, in recent years, the Supreme Court has issued decisions undermining some of the country's most important laws, including environmental laws.
But Glenn Spencer, deputy director of environmental policy for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a conservative group that supports the rights of private property owners, disagreed. He said the courts have been just as prone to erring on the side of over-regulating in environmental cases.
"These are a bunch of environmental activists that simply don't like President Bush and don't like conservative judges," Spencer said. "And this is another example of these groups going after public officials they don't like."
Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute who follows judicial nominations, said what the environmental groups are doing is now the standard operating procedure for special interest groups.
"We've passed the stage where a potential judge is simply an honorable person, a person who hasn't broken the law, has paid his taxes and otherwise has no personal disqualifications," Hess said. "Advocacy groups are going to make their case in judicial selections just has they do in the elections of the executive and legislative branches."