Sidestepping a two-year congressional battle, President Bush promoted federal judge Charles Pickering of Mississippi to an appeals court, at least temporarily, in a slap at filibustering Senate Democrats who question the nominee's civil rights record. Bush elevated Pickering on Friday from the U.S. district court to the fifth U.S. circuit court of appeals in New Orleans under authority granted him when Congress is in recess. Such appointments, which need no Senate confirmation, are valid until the next Congress takes office, in this case in January 2005.
Pickering's nomination and appointment have concerned many gay rights activists, who refer to his record as proof of his antigay stance. In a speech before the 1984 Mississippi Southern Baptist Convention, Pickering lumped homosexuality with social problems, according to The [Jackson, Miss.] Clarion Ledger. "We as Southern Baptists should lead the way in strengthening traditional moral values," he said, adding that society has been degraded by such things as pornography, homosexuality, and divorce. The gay rights group Human Rights Campaign sharply criticized Bush for the recess appointment. Pickering is one of only six judges HRC has opposed out of approximately 200 nominated by the president. "Judge Pickering has advanced a body of jurisprudence that does not reflect America's highest values, and the individuals within his jurisdiction deserve better," said HRC president Cheryl Jacques. "A man whose career has been marked by racial divisiveness and antigay prejudice cannot be trusted to fairly interpret the laws of our country."
Bush's move probably will reignite and intensify in this election year the battle between Republicans and Democrats over the makeup of the federal judiciary. Bush took a shot at Senate Democrats in his announcement Friday, saying that Pickering "will perform a valuable service on a court that needs more judges to do its work with the efficiency the American people deserve and expect. Again, I call on the Senate to stop playing politics with the American judicial system and to give my nominees the up-or-down votes they deserve."
Pickering, meanwhile, was informally sworn in, in Jackson, Miss., Friday night. "I'm grateful to the president for his continued confidence and support," the 66-year-old trial judge said. "I look forward to serving on the fifth circuit." The circuit handles appeals from Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana, and the
judges on that circuit have been trailblazers on desegregation and voting rights in the past. Democrats have accused Pickering of supporting segregation as a young man and promoting anti-abortion and anti-voting-rights positions as a state lawmaker. Republicans in turn have accused Democrats of being religiously prejudiced against Bush's anti-abortion nominees. They also have accused the Democrats of
discriminating against Southerners.