WASHINGTON - The Senate confirmed Judge Leslie Southwick to the federal appeals court in New Orleans yesterday after Republicans overpowered objections by Democrats who said he wasn't sensitive enough to the history of race relations in the region.
The 59-to-38 vote on confirmation was sealed after the nomination survived its main obstacle, a test tally moments earlier in which a dozen Democrats sided with Republicans to end a threatened filibuster. That left majority Democrats without the power to block Southwick's confirmation, even after a heated debate that raised the pain of civil rights struggles in the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which serves Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.
Southwick's record as a state appeals court judge in Mississippi drew opposition from traditionally left-leaning groups who warned Democrats that his confirmation could mean consequences on Election Day.
"We regard this as a test," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the delegate for the District of Columbia and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
"This vote for Leslie Southwick is a vote against the dignity and safety of our families," said Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign.
But supporters of Southwick's nomination said the choice was rightly decided on his qualifications, not the turbulent history of the Fifth Circuit.
President Bush said the Senate's confirmation was a victory for the judicial system, and he called for confirmation of his other federal court nominees.
"Judge Southwick is a man of character and intelligence who will apply the law fairly. I appreciate the Senate's approval of his nomination," Bush said.
For Bush and the GOP, Southwick's confirmation is a rare victory in a Democratic-led Congress ahead of what may be a tough election year. Particularly sweet for Republicans was the pivotal role played by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who sided with Republicans on the Judiciary Committee and voted to give Southwick an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. Another bonus for the party out of congressional power: eight Democrats and one independent joined Feinstein in voting to confirm Southwick.
Democrats who voted for confirmation are Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Feinstein, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, also voted yes.
The nomination tested a fragile agreement in the Senate to block Bush's judicial nominations only in "extraordinary" circumstances. Some Democratic opponents said Southwick's writings, combined with the troubled racial history of the circuit, met the amorphous standard; however, Feinstein disagreed.
Republicans showered her with rhetorical roses after the vote, calling her "the heroine," "the lady of the day," and "a profile in courage."
But Feinstein wasn't the only Democrat responsible for the confirmation, which unfolded in a two-step procedure. The final vote to confirm would not have happened without the initial "yes" votes from Senators Tom Carper of Delaware, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, and Ken Salazar of Colorado, on the test tally that asked whether to end debate. Support from the three pushed the tally past the 60-vote threshold to advance Southwick to a confirmation vote.
Those three senators then voted against his confirmation.
At issue were two cases in which Southwick was involved as a state appeals court judge in Mississippi. One was a 1998 decision that upheld the reinstatement of a social worker who used a racial slur in reference to a co-worker. Three years later, Southwick joined a ruling against a bisexual mother in a custody case. He also joined what some activists said was an antigay concurring opinion.
Southwick's supporters pointed out that those were among 7,000 opinions across the nominee's career and that none of those facts addressed his qualifications. Conservative legal groups began pressuring Democrats from traditionally Republican states to give Southwick an up-or-down vote.
The Senate has been fighting over the seat on the Fifth Circuit for years. Southwick was nominated by Bush in January to fill the slot that has been vacant on the panel since the completion of Judge Charles W. Pickering's recess appointment on Dec. 8, 2004.