Liberals Berate Senate Democrats Over Judicial Nominees

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

Washington ( - Liberal activists -- who usually reserve their harshest criticism for Republicans -- turned the tables Thursday, criticizing a handful of Senate Democrats who haven't always followed the party line in opposing President Bush's judicial nominees.

A strategy session attended by more than 100 people at the liberal Take Back America conference served as a rallying cry for Democrats to filibuster more of Bush's nominees, including nominees whom Senate Democrats agreed to support in a deal with the White House last month.

But representatives from five liberal interest groups also used the occasion to single out Senate Democrats who at times were reluctant to oppose certain conservative nominees.

"There is a handful that we have to work every time," said Nancy Zirkin, deputy director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "There is a universe of about 11 [senators] that we cannot take for granted."

Zirkin and Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, said the list includes traditionally liberal senators like Joe Biden (D-Del.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) as well as moderates such as John Breaux (D-La.), Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), Zell Miller (D-Ga.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

When asked about Biden's unwillingness to always go along with liberal activists, the senator's spokesman, Chip Unruh, said he thought it was a fair characterization.

"I think it means we're doing something right if we're getting calls from liberals and conservatives complaining," Unruh said. "I think [Biden] strikes a good balance in that he votes his conscience."

Senators who earned the most praise included Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Each played an instrumental role in filibustering six of President Bush's judicial nominees.

"We've got some amazing senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee who have just been terrific. Chuck Schumer, Patrick Leahy, Ted Kennedy, Dick Durbin," Aron said. "Dick Durbin has been amazing."

Staff aides to three of those senators - Durbin, Kennedy and Leahy - allegedly played a role in the "Memogate" controversy. Memos uncovered by Republican aides on the Senate Judiciary Committee exposed the extensive connections between liberal interest groups and those senators in trying to derail the confirmations of Bush's judicial nominees.

Although no mention of the memos was made during the strategy session, afterward Zirkin played down the significance of the matter. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights was one of the groups that allegedly sought to influence senators to block certain nominations.

"We have made no comments on it," Zirkin said. "We've not gotten into it because, frankly, this is about dirty tricks. And it's up to the senators to clean up their own backyard."

The bulk of Thursday's strategy session was dedicated to rallying liberal activists to oppose additional Bush nominees. Aron opened the meeting by chastising Democrats for agreeing to a May 18 deal in which Bush agreed to temporarily halt recess appointments in exchange for the approval of 25 nominees.

"We don't like many of the court of appeals judges as part of the deal," Aron said. "And so we are looking forward to working with all of you to see if we can get the Senate to stop one or two more court of appeals judges."

Aron said liberal interest groups plan to pressure Democrats to block the appeals court confirmations of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Diane S. Sykes and Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes II. Sykes is one of the nominees who will get a vote, but Haynes' nomination wasn't part of the deal.

If a Supreme Court justice retires this summer, Aron vowed that liberals would be united in opposition to a conservative nominee. She said Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, both appointed by Republicans, remain the most likely to step down.

"I can't imagine Bush getting someone on the Supreme Court," Aron said. "But we are approaching the end of June, which is the traditional time for justices to step down. I don't anticipate anyone doing that, simply because I think Senate Democrats would really stand very firmly against appointing anyone."

When asked afterward if Democrats would oppose any Supreme Court nominee picked by Bush, Aron replied: "If there were a moderate, balanced, open-minded nominee, I think the Democrats would certainly be open. But, from what we've seen of this administration's nominees, I cannot imagine in my wildest dreams George Bush sending up anyone but an extremist."

See Related Story:
Alleged 'Memogate' Conspirator Says Fighting Judicial Nominees Is Left's Priority
(June 3, 2004)

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