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Bush defends embattled judicial nominee

By KATHY GAMBRELL, UPI White House Reporter

WASHINGTON, March 6 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush on Wednesday brought appeals court nominee Charles Pickering to the White House and called on the Senate to stop playing politics with his nomination.

"I think the country is tired of people playing politics all the time in Washington," Bush said at the Oval Office with Pickering at his side. "And I believe that they're holding this man's nomination up for political purposes. And it's not fair, and it's not right."

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Bush nominated Pickering, who has served 12 years as a U.S. district judge in Hattiesburg, Miss., to sit on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The nomination pits the White House against Senate Democrats, labor, civil rights and abortion-rights organizations that were concerned Pickering would not uphold civil-rights laws.

"It is Charles Pickering's public record ... that provides the best evidence that Charles Pickering embraces a right-wing judicial philosophy that would turn back the clock on civil rights, reproductive rights and many other important issues," said People for the American Way, a liberal social justice group in a statement released Wednesday.

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Pickering's opponents cite a series of his rulings and a 1959 law review article as reasons why the Senate should reject his nomination. They say the article demonstrates his opposition to interracial marriage.

Groups such as the National Organization for Women, NAACP and NARAL have launched campaigns aimed at drawing attention to what they say is Pickering's long history of racial and gender bias. Pickering was also critical of the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

The People for the American Way also brought up Pickering's record as a Mississippi state senator. It said he sought to weaken the Voting Rights Act by co-sponsoring a resolution that called on Congress to repeal the section of the measure that allowed federal oversight of jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting.

Bush maintained Pickering was a good man who should be elevated to the appeals court.

"Here's what I believe: I believe this man should be confirmed," Bush said. "I know him. I've known him for a long time. But more importantly, people from Mississippi have known him."

The White House said Wednesday it was confident Pickering would be confirmed if his nomination were brought to a vote before the full Senate. It pointed to his 1990 unanimous confirmation for the District Court.

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"The only thing that could have changed since then is the politics," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer during his afternoon briefing.

It remains doubtful whether the nomination will emerge from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats remained unconvinced that Pickering was the right man for the job, despite backing from civil rights leaders in the state.

Senate Majority Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said some civil rights advocates say they are very deeply concerned about whether Pickering could uphold civil rights laws.

"I don't think that there is any way of knowing -- any way of having the confidence to know what he would do in most of those cases," he said. "But those who have examined his record very closely are convinced that he's probably incapable of upholding the civil rights laws as they ought to be interpreted."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., weighed in, saying his decision would be based on the hearings and the full record, but added that: "The only thing that is different under Democratic leadership is that even controversial nominations like this one are getting hearings and votes these days, which is far more than dozens of President Clinton's nominees got from a Republican Senate."

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Supporters accompanied Pickering to the White House in an all-out effort to tamp down criticism, explain his court rulings have been taken out of context and to draw attention to what they consider his record of racial reconciliation.

Among those supporters were his son, U.S. Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering, R-Miss.; Charles Evers, brother of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers; and Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, a Democrat known for his office's prosecution of former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers.

Pickering's backers called the judge's dilemma a case of Washington insiders opposing a Mississippi judge's nomination without really knowing the man personally. Moore said it was easy for those in Washington to "beat up on Mississippi." He called the process of examining a nominee's past record "unfair."

Evers challenged reporters who questioned Pickering's 1959 law review article and ticked off a list of Pickering's work on race relations during the 1960s and 1970s.

Pickering, Evers said, testified against Bowers in 1960 and a decade later took on the case of a black man accused of robbing a white woman.

"You're referring to something that took place over 40 years ago when he was a law student," Fleischer said of the article written when Pickering was 21. "If actions taken by people 40 years ago were the criteria, there'd be some senators who are voting on this nomination whose very history would come into play. So I think what you've seen is a nation that has changed."

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Pickering's most passionate defender, his son Charles, said the judge defended integration and worked to bring about racial reconciliation in his state. He also said he did not believe his father would have sent him and two sisters to an integrated school had he been a racist.

"He has repeatedly said the '59 article personally, morally, theologically, constitutionally, he does not agree with that," he said. "He said it in his first confirmation when he was unanimously approved and he said it in his hearings. He said constitutionally and morally whomever one chooses to marry is their choice.

"If he is some kind of separatist, why would his children go to schools that are 70 percent African American?"

The younger Pickering called the allegations against his father "stereotypes used to smear a good man."

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