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Nominee to Spark Showdown

Judicial Fight on Tap

After six months of steadily approving President Bush’s top-tier judicial nominations, Senators this week may be headed for their first partisan battle over the bench this Congress when the Judiciary Committee votes to install Leslie Southwick to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Southwick is highly regarded in GOP circles, but his record on civil and human rights issues has raised concerns recently among some Democrats and left-leaning organizations who view him as too incendiary for a lifetime appellate court spot.

And while that unease may not be enough to sink Southwick’s Senate confirmation entirely, it may be just enough to spark some attention-getting fireworks when the Judiciary panel considers his appointment on Thursday.

“This nomination is a controversial one,” said a senior Democratic Senate aide. “I’m not 100 percent certain he has the votes to make it out of the committee, and if he does go to the floor, this could be the first showdown in 2007 over a controversial Bush nominee.”

“It could be the first judge fight we’ve had in quite a while,” echoed a senior GOP Senate aide.

Southwick, an adjunct professor at the Mississippi College School of Law and longtime state appeals court judge, is the latest of Bush’s circuit court nominees to move through the Senate this Congress. So far, the Senate has approved three of the powerful circuit court justices, including last month’s overwhelming 91-0 vote to put Debra Ann Livingston on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court.

White House officials have shown no sign of backing off their support of Southwick, whom they view as one of the administration’s more palatable judicial selections. In fact, administration sources said late last week that, mounting criticism aside, they still believe there is enough Democratic support to clear Southwick through the chamber.

“It’s not going to be unanimous vote in committee or on floor, but we are confident we have the votes to get him confirmed,” said one White House official.

Bush’s judicial nominations have been a source of contention in the Senate in recent years, especially during the 109th Congress when Republicans threatened to avert the then-minority’s use of the filibuster if they didn’t allow for up-or-down votes on Bush’s bench selections. Ultimately a deal was struck to allow certain nominations to move forward as long as the filibuster was left intact.

This year, however, the barking has been much quieter and limited primarily to concerns over the pace with which Senators have approved appellate justices. The White House is hoping to advance at least 17 circuit judges over the course of this Congress, the average number approved during the final two years of the past three presidents.

Southwick is Bush’s latest pick for a seat on the 5th Circuit, following some unsuccessful attempts at permanently installing highly controversial selections of Judges Charles Pickering and Michael Wallace. Bush opted against trying to renominate Wallace to the appellate bench earlier this year under the now-Democratic majority.

Given the history, the obstacles now facing Southwick aren’t surprising, and last week several minority rights and liberal judicial groups upped their call for Bush to withdraw his nomination or for the Judiciary Committee to vote against his installment.

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