Wednesday, November 5, 2003

The Rev. Al Sharpton implored Senate Democrats yesterday not to filibuster President Bush’s nomination of California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown to the nation’s second-highest federal court.

Justice Brown, who is black, has come under intense criticism by liberal black groups, such as the NAACP, and by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The panel plans to vote this morning on her nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

“I don’t agree with her politics. I don’t agree with some of her background,” said Mr. Sharpton, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president. “But she should get an up-or-down vote.”

Democrats have been sharply critical of Justice Brown, though they have not yet explicitly vowed a filibuster, which would prevent her name from reaching the Senate floor for a confirmation vote that likely would pass. If all nine Democrats vote against the nomination today, they will likely begin a filibuster against her.

Mr. Sharpton’s comments not only complicate the vote for several Democrats on the panel, they also are a stark departure from some of the best-known black groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said Justice Brown is “hostile to civil rights and civil liberties and ill-prepared to sit on the nation’s second-highest court.”

“The president’s penchant for choosing extremist minority judicial candidates is an exercise in cynicism of the worst kind,” Mr. Bond said. “Clothing extreme views in color is designed to make them more difficult to oppose, but judicial selections should be based in principle, not in pigment.”

Born into a poor, sharecropping family in segregated Alabama, Justice Brown made her way through law school as a single mother. After serving in former California Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration, she was named by him to the California Supreme Court.

At a press conference yesterday, Mr. Bond and other black leaders portrayed Justice Brown as a “far right-wing extremist” and “outside the mainstream.”

They were asked how Justice Brown could be described as a right-wing ideologue when 76 percent of California voters cast ballots to return her to the bench in 1998, the highest percentage of any justice in that retention election.

“It’s inexplicable to me,” Mr. Bond said. “I cannot think of a response. But nonetheless, that election does not invalidate any of the things [we] have said.”

Mr. Sharpton echoed the concerns of many conservatives — especially black conservatives — that Justice Brown is being opposed because she doesn’t conform to the Democratic ideology that many blacks espouse.

“We’ve got to stop this monolith in black America because it impedes the freedom of expression for all of us,” Mr. Sharpton said in a television interview conducted by Sinclair Broadcasting yesterday. “I don’t think she should be opposed because she doesn’t come from some assumed club.”

Mr. Sharpton compared the filibusters to the same sort of “pocket vetoes” used for so long against blacks.

Wade Henderson, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, who attended the anti-Brown press conference, was later asked about Mr. Sharpton’s remarks.

“I don’t believe it. That can’t be true,” he said as he headed to a meeting in the Democratic leadership office. “It would be shockingly surprising.”

Mr. Sharpton’s position could create particular problems for Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat and candidate for president, who plans to vote against Justice Brown’s nomination in the Judiciary Committee today.

A group supporting Justice Brown’s nomination is airing television ads in South Carolina criticizing Mr. Edwards for blocking the nominee, who was born into the same conditions as many of those in that state’s large black population.

South Carolina is Mr. Edwards’ birth state and his best early hope for a primary victory. South Carolina also is the state where Mr. Sharpton has the highest poll numbers.

• Robert Redding Jr. and Steve Miller contributed to this report.

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