WASHINGTON, May 3 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush Friday declared a judicial crisis in federal and circuit courts around the nation and again accused the Senate of stalling the confirmation of his nominees for judgeships.
In a speech delivered in the Eisenhower Old Executive Office Building, Bush again criticized lawmakers for not taking action on his 100 federal court nominees submitted to the Senate in the past year. So far, Bush said, nine of his 30 nominees in the federal circuit courts of appeal have been confirmed.
"Federal judges are key to make sure America functions well. Every day, they uphold the rights of an individual, they protect the innocent, they punish the guilty. Their rulings are essential to the rule of law in our nation," Bush said. "To discharge their responsibilities effectively, the federal courts must have judges. Yet today, more than 10 percent of all federal judgeships are vacant."
The situation is more severe in the 12 regional Circuit Courts of Appeal where nearly 20 percent have vacant seats. Only nine of the president's 30 nominees to the circuit court have been confirmed. Officials pointed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee, as an example of one of the worst-case scenarios with eight of 16 seats on the bench occupied.
"Back in March of 2000, when it had only four vacancies, its chief judge said it was hurting badly and would not be able to keep up with its workload," Bush said.
Bush and the Democratically-controlled Senate have been at odds over his nominees for the federal and circuit court bench for months with each side accusing the other playing politics and engaging in delaying tactics. Bush said his first 11 nominees, whose names were sent to Capitol Hill on May 9, 2001, remain unconfirmed, with only three having received hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"All judicial nominees deserve a timely hearing, and they deserve a vote," Bush said.
Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Democrat, said the surge in vacancies that was created "on the Republicans' watch is being cleaned up under the Democratic leadership in the Senate."
"In just ten months since the Senate changeover we have confirmed 52 judges and have set a far better pace than Republicans set for considering President Clinton's nominees," Leahy said. "We are working hard to restore fairness in the confirmation process, which was sorely lacking in the previous six years under Republican control of the Senate."
Leahy maintained that controversial nominations take longer and that Bush could help by choosing nominees "primarily for their ability instead of for their ideology." Leahy vowed that the Senate would not "rubber stamp nominees who would undermine" the fairness of an independent judiciary.
"I agree with the president that we need a fair, impartial and independent judiciary, and it is the Senate's obligation to ensure that those standards are met," Leahy said.
One of Bush's most controversial nominees has been Charles Pickering, who served 12 years as a U.S. District judge in Hattiesburg, Miss. Bush chose Pickering to sit on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a nomination that pit the White House not only against Senate Democrats, but also labor, civil rights and abortion rights organizations. Various groups were concerned that Pickering would not uphold civil rights laws and expressed dismay over some of legal writings and rulings on the issue of race.
One of Pickering's most ardent supporters, his son U.S. Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering, R-Miss, has maintained that his father has supported integration and worked for racial integration in his state. He called the allegations against his father "stereotypes used to smear a good man."