Thursday, October 2, 2003

The Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday moved Mississippi federal Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr.’s nomination to a higher court to the Senate for a full vote after an acrimonious debate over religion and racism.

At yesterday’s committee meeting, Democrats made thinly veiled accusations that Judge Pickering — nominated by President Bush to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — was racist and Mr. Bush was foolish to press the nomination so forcibly.

“Judge Pickering’s nomination was bad enough and his renomination is even worse,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. “It’s hard to believe the president would rather pick this fight than pick a decent judge.”

Judge Pickering, whose original nomination was killed when Democrats controlled the committee, was moved out of committee on a 10-9 party-line vote yesterday. It has been nearly two years since he was first nominated by Mr. Bush.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called Judge Pickering’s civil rights record “extremely troubling.”

“Judge Pickering’s handling of the cross-burning case. We all know that he improperly intervened with the Justice Department to get a lighter sentence for a man convicted of burning a cross on an interracial family’s lawn,” he said.

Mr. Schumer said he expects Judge Pickering to be filibustered. Republicans said they plan to introduce Judge Pickering’s nomination for a Senate vote “at the earliest time possible.”

In the audience sat the judge’s son, Rep. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering Jr., Mississippi Republican, who closed his eyes and shook his head.

Many from Mississippi — including civil rights activists, black leaders and Democrats — saw the case quite differently.

Judge Pickering’s intervention, they say, came only after the ringleader of the cross-burning group struck a deal with prosecutors for eight months’ home confinement, while one of the followers was sentenced to seven years in the penitentiary.

They also point out that Judge Pickering testified and took other public actions against Ku Klux Klan members during the most violent periods of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

“All that Judge Pickering is guilty of is seeking fairness and consistency in sentencing a criminal defendant,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican. “Judge Pickering has been victimized by this sort of inaccurate, race-baiting political trash talk.”

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, worried about a “campaign of negative stereotyping against Southerners,” and said false charges of racism “discredits every true charge of racism.”

The most dramatic moments came when Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, South Carolina Republican, looked across the aisle at Mr. Schumer and several other senators from cold-weather states and said. “There is nothing worse you can say about a Southern white person than that they are racist. We have to live with that all the time and it is our own fault to a certain extent.”

As he concluded his remarks, Mr. Graham introduced the younger Mr. Pickering in the audience and told him he’d vote for his father.

“Do you know what it must have been like in 1967 to get on the stand and testify against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi,” Mr. Graham asked the Northern senators in a shaky voice. “Do you have any idea of the courage that took? Shame on you.”

It requires 60 votes to break a filibuster and move a nominee to confirmation. Republicans control the chamber by a two-vote margin, with 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who usually sides with the Democrats.

Democrats already have filibustered three of Mr. Bush’s nominees, one of whom dropped out after the Republicans failed to break the blockade.

• This story is based in part on wire service dispatches.

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