Bush's Judicial Nominees Alarm Conservationists
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, January 29, 2003 (ENS) - Several of the Bush administration's nominees to the federal appellate court have records that reflect controversial views of the federal government's authority to enforce environmental regulations. Environmental groups, as well as pubic health, labor and women's rights organizations, fear that these nominees will act to advance their ideological agendas, rather than interpret the legality of government policies.
"If you can't go to court and get an honest, fair and unbiased hearing before a judge who is going to decide on the law and constitution, not on distrust of environmental groups or hostilities to governmental actions, then we are really in trouble," said Glenn Sugameli, senior legal counsel for Earthjustice. "This is critical now because [these courts] are the last line of defense against the attack on the environment."
President Bush has nominated 100 people to serve as federal judges. Of primary concern are nominees to serve on the 13 federal appeals courts, which take cases from courts within their jurisdictions. This level of the judiciary is only superceded by the U.S. Supreme Court, which chooses to hear less than some 100 cases a year.
These 13 courts very often provide the final decision on legal challenges to environmental rules and regulations, and their judges are appointed for life.
"This is where the law actually goes into effect, and that is why we are very, very concerned about the slate of nominees," said Sierra Club spokesman David Bookbinder. "We'd like to believe that the President is going to put people on who are within the mainstream."
"We understand the President deciding to have conservative judges, but we are concerned with the President going out of his way to find people who are espousing what can only be called extremist views."
Another nominee rejected last year by the Senate is District Court Judge Charles Pickering, Sr. His decisions dismissing claims by victims in toxic tort cases were overruled by the 5th Circuit, the court that the President has again nominated him to serve on.
Ninth Circuit nominee Carolyn Kuhl, a former Justice Department lawyer under President Ronald Reagan and a current Los Angeles County judge, challenged the Supreme Court's precedent on associational standing, a longstanding legal interpretation that enables organizations to protect the rights of their members in court.
Rising concerns about nominees to federal courts has coincided with increased documentation of the key role these courts play in the protection of the nation's environment. Seldom does an environmental rule or regulation move forward without a lawsuit by environmental groups or by affected industries.
A report issued in 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Community Rights Counsel and Alliance for Justice found that the increasing activism of federal judges has harmed environmental protection efforts.
"Environmental statutes are suffering a death from a thousand cuts in non-constitutional cases as anti-environmental judges ignoring the intent of Congress expressed in statutory text and legislative history," according to the report, titled "Hostile Environment: How Activist Judges Threaten Our Air, Water and Land."
"This trend is particularly evident on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a critical court empowered to hear most challenges to environmental decisions made by federal agencies," the report found, saying,. "Extensive empirical research indicates that judges on the D.C. Circuit and around the country are letting their ideology influence their decision making in environmental cases."
But there is a growing slate of new lawsuits and legal petitions, including formal challenges to revisions and enforcement of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the off-road vehicles emissions law, the National Forest Management Plan as well as to several marine species protection, fisheries and pollution issues.
"We are fighting a defensive battle here," Bookbinder said. "And just because it is bad policy, doesn't mean it is illegal. We are only attacking the things we believe are illegal. Judges only throw out bad policy if it is illegal."
"That is why we've been having a very good success rate with Bush policies. We are afraid that with some of these judges that we are going to lose that ability."
With some 25 of the 179 federal appellate court judge positions at the 13 appeals courts currently vacant, the Bush administration has an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the character of the court. Republicans currently hold majority in seven of 13 courts, Democrats with the majority on two and the remaining four roughly balanced.
"We are concerned some of these courts are really getting out of balance, and moving to the extreme," Sugameli said. "This could have the potential to undermine almost any environmental protection."
Some Democrats in Congress share these concerns, although they are fighting allegations by the Bush administration and other Republicans that they want to apply a political litmus test to judicial nominees.
Not true, counters Senator Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. On January 24, 2003, Leahy warned that the Democrats have been unfairly criticized for the number of judicial vacancies and argued that the Bush administration has tainted the process of judicial nominees by not actively reaching out to Democrats for their input on the nominees. The President is constitutionally bound to seek the Senate's advice and consent in the appointments to the federal court.
"Sending the Senate divisive judicial nominations is something I have urged the President to avoid, but that is exactly what he has chosen to do," Leahy said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings on selected nominees tomorrow.