Placing dignity before partisanship

Published 4:34 pm Wednesday, September 19, 2007

As many Mississippians know, confirming federal judges has become mired in partisan politics, driven primarily by special interest groups who see the judiciary as a means to enact their agenda. Recent developments give hope that it may be coming to an end.

Liberal groups in particular have found their goals unpopular with most Americans, so without broad public or legislative support for what they want to do, they count on court rulings by activist judges.

There’s nothing new about all this. It’s been going on for decades. I’ve written about it many times, as have scores of others. What’s new is the degree of partisanship we’ve seen in the Senate over judicial nominations in recent years.

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During most of my 35 years in Washington, Senators on both the right and left tended to be very careful when confirming judges. They routinely tuned out much of the partisan rhetoric advanced by outside special interests in favor of the inside considerations of day-to-day Senate operations.

Senators on both sides of the aisle knew that blocking a qualified judicial nominee on partisan grounds could lead to a taste of the same medicine when the other party was in control. As long as nominees were qualified by education and experience, they tended to be confirmed, notwithstanding outside partisan pressures. Deference was given only to the opinions of a nominee’s home state Senators.

The last five years have brought the successive nominations of several Mississippi judges who have been attacked viciously by liberal special interest groups, just because they were from Mississippi and conservative.

Senator Dianne Feinstein’s vote of support for Mississippi Judge Leslie Southwick’s nomination, just before August, signaled a welcome return to bipartisan statesmanship in the Senate.

Senator Feinstein is a staunch Democrat, but she concluded that Judge Southwick is qualified to serve.

I made a similar decision on Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Clinton nominee for the Supreme Court in the late 1990s. I probably wouldn’t agree with Justice Ginsburg on any philosophical issue, but she was qualified to serve by education, experience and temperament. Elections have consequences, and she had President Clinton’s confidence. I voted for her confirmation.

After only days back in session, the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 6 agreed to report the nomination of Judge Sharon Aycock to the full Senate for a vote. Judge Aycock is another outstanding Mississippi judge. When confirmed, she’ll be the first woman to serve as a District Court Judge on Mississippi’s federal bench.

Another positive sign is the investiture or swearing-in of Judge Sul Ozerden to the federal court in South Mississippi.

Judge Ozerden is the son of a Turkish immigrant who came to America back in 1963 with only a suitcase and $100. He instilled in his son, Sul, the ideal that America was indeed a land of opportunity where hard work is rewarded and anyone with determination can be successful.

Sul took his father’s advice and found the American dream. He served in the Navy as a combat aviator before becoming an outstanding attorney on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I’m confident he’ll make a great federal judge, and I was proud to witness his swearing-in.

As the Senate approaches a final vote on Judges Southwick and Aycock, I’m optimistic and hope we are back on the high road in confirming judicial nominees.

It takes a special person to be a judge – to obtain the education, make the rigorous decisions and undergo the exhausting FBI background checks and tough confirmation process that all federal judicial nominees must endure. The Senate may not confirm every judicial nominee, but we should confirm all who are qualified. Judicial nominees were once treated with dignity, before partisanship, and I hope they will be again.