WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed a conservative southern judge to a federal appeals court, giving President George W. Bush a rare victory in his drive this year to put more conservatives on the appellate bench.
By a vote of 59-38, the Senate approved Bush’s long-stalled nomination of Mississippi Judge Leslie Southwick to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, drawing swift reaction from many of those running to be elected next year to replace Bush in the White House.
The Senate vote came shortly after 49 Republicans — joined by 12 Democrats and one independent — mustered 62 votes, two more than needed, to clear a Democratic procedural roadblock.
“The confirmation of Judge Leslie Southwick ... is a victory for America’s judicial system,” said Bush, who also called on the Senate to confirm his other judicial nominees.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona interrupted a presidential campaign trip to return to the Capitol to vote for Southwick and take a political shot at White House challengers.
“Liberals, including the Democratic presidential candidates, are opposing Judge Southwick because they know he will strictly interpret the law rather than make it from the bench,” said McCain, who described the nominee as a fair-minded judge who interrupted his career to serve in the Iraq war.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democratic White House contender, also returned to the Capitol but he did so to vote against the 57-year-old judge.
“Southwick has shown hostility toward civil rights and a disregard for equal rights for minorities, women, gays and lesbians,” Obama said.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a leading Republican presidential hopeful, hailed Southwick’s confirmation and said, “All of the president’s judicial nominees deserve the courtesy of timely consideration and an up-or-down vote by the United States Senate.”
Democrats won control of the Senate last November, promising to block extremist judicial nominees and demand mainstream candidates. Bush has nominated 14 appeals court judges since Democrats took the helm in January, with Southwick only the fifth to win Senate confirmation.
Critics accuse Democrats of slowing down consideration of the candidates, hoping to run out the clock on the president, whose term ends in January 2009.
Republicans note the Senate moved far quicker on appeals court nominees during the final two years of the previous three presidents, confirming an average of 17.
Backers of Southwick argued he deserved to be confirmed, pointing out he has broad support in Mississippi and had received the American Bar Association’s highest rating.
Liberal and civil rights groups opposed Southwick. They charged that as a state appeals judge for 13 years he consistently sided with businesses over workers and consumers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, crossed party lines to vote for Southwick, saying: “We have seen too much delay and controversy over qualified nominees for too many years.”
In 2005, a bipartisan group of 14 senators reached an accord to avert a potentially crippling showdown in the Senate over a number of Bush’s then-stalled judicial nominees.
They agreed to preserve the right of senators to raise procedural roadblocks to stop the president’s judicial candidates but only under “extraordinary circumstances.”
Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a Democratic leader of this so-called Gang of 14, backed Southwick as did a number of others in the group.