Republicans test airwaves to break judicial impasse

Republicans and their supporters are taking the debate over President Bush’s stalled judicial nominations directly to voters in an untested effort to find out whether people actually care about the increasingly politicized issue. Television advertisements have gone up in South Carolina; radio ads are running in Michigan and Republicans scheduled 30 straight hours of debate next week on judicial nominations that will be broadcast live on C-SPAN 2.

“We’re going to highlight this obstructionism by staying on the floor and making our arguments,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We want the American people to know how pitiful the process has become.”

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said he welcomed the televised airtime, suggesting the plan might backfire on Republicans by portraying Congress as more interested in judges than job creation.

“We would love the opportunity to have a debate on C-SPAN about their priorities and ours,” Mr. Daschle said. “Their priority is four judicial nominations. Our priority is three and a half million jobs.”

In particular, Republicans are furious about the Democrat-led filibusters against Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi and Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, both of whom have been nominated to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor, nominated to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A fourth nominee, Washington lawyer Miguel Estrada, nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, had been filibustered but withdrew his nomination after two years of waiting.

All four nominees have support from a majority of senators but are being blocked through parliamentary procedures by a group of 45 Democrats, preventing the nominees from getting a final vote on the floor.

Whether the marathon debate on C-SPAN 2 becomes a victory for Democrats or Republicans cannot be predicted, but either way, plenty of Americans will have an opportunity to see it.

“There are 70 million cable homes that can tune in to these Senate moments,” said Robin Scullin, spokeswoman for C-SPAN 2, which carries all Senate proceedings live.

“Anecdotal evidence suggests that viewers really do pay attention to the hot judicial debates,” she said. “We hear about it and our cable operators who support us hear about it.”

In Michigan and South Carolina, voters have been exposed lately to more than just debate about judges on C-SPAN.

The conservative group Citizens for a Sound Economy launched a radio advertisement in Michigan, criticizing Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, for blocking four of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees from that state.

Mr. Levin and Mr. Hatch continue to negotiate for a way to end the impasse. One solution under discussion involves adding a Michigan-based circuit court seat that would be filled by Michigan Judge Helene White, who was nominated by President Clinton but never got a hearing by Republicans. Judge White also happens to be married to Mr. Levin’s first cousin.

In the radio ad, titled “Family Ties,” an announcer says: “Family ties bind us together but sometimes family ties go too far.”

Patriotic background music switches to horror movie music and the announcer continues: “Like in Washington, where family ties are tying the United States Senate in knots and it’s costing you.”

After explaining the situation, the announcer asks listeners to send Mr. Levin a message: “Tell him to stand up for justice for American families, not just the Levin family.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, fellow Michigan Democrat who is blocking the judges with Mr. Levin, criticized the ads and said the issue of judges “is not on the public’s radar screen.”

“What the ads do is make it more and more difficult for us to work out a bipartisan solution,” she said. “Senator Hatch has been working in good faith with us and these ads are not helpful.”

In South Carolina, the conservative group Committee for Justice bought a small run of television ads critical of Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat and presidential hopeful, in a state crucial to his dreams of capturing the White House.

The ad revolves around Mr. Edwards’ opposition to California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, nominated by Mr. Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Justice Brown, who is black, is viewed by many Democrats as being too conservative for the court and they are planning to filibuster her nomination.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said the idea of filibustering judges who have the support of a majority in the Senate will anger voters.

“Most Americans will not look kindly at this Constitutional rule change,” he said. “It’s just not fair.”

Nu Wexler, director of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said the anti- Edwards ad went largely unnoticed last week.

“We got no calls about that,” he said. “South Carolina voters are more interested in job losses here than whether a California judge gets a promotion.”


Caption: Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said he hoped a broadcast appeal would show Americans “how pitiful” the obstruction of judicial nominations has become. [Photo by AP]