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Frist Lashes Out at Levin, Stabenow on Michigan Nominees

Republicans again accused Democrats of blockading the federal courts Wednesday, singling out Michigan’s two Democratic Senators for extra scrutiny.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), joined by GOP Senators and House Members, turned up the heat on Michigan Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, charging them with denying justice to the citizens of Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky and Michigan — states that make up the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Levin and Stabenow have not returned “blue slips” on four of President Bush’s nominees to that court — traditionally a home state Senator’s prerogative — thereby blocking their hearings before the Judiciary Committee.

Frist, saying that Levin and Stabenow are meting out retribution for Republican blocks on former President Bill Clinton’s nominees to the same court, requested that Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) ignore their objections and move to a hearing anyway.

On July 7 the Majority Leader filed a discharge petition, a maneuver that would leapfrog the committee and bring the nominees directly to the Senate floor for confirmation. But any Senator can object to calling the petition up, thereby blocking it.

Levin and Stabenow have maintained that Bush should renominate at least one of the thwarted Clinton nominees.

“It is time to stop the press conferences and political attacks, and take the partisanship out of the 6th Circuit nomination process,” Stabenow and Levin said in a joint statement. “That is why we have proposed a nonpartisan commission that would lead to a real solution to fill the Michigan vacancies on the Sixth Circuit and we invite our Michigan Republican colleagues and the Bush Administration to set politics aside and work with us in putting this commission in place.”

“This very partisan temper tantrum has to end,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said at a news conference Wednesday morning under the auspices of “Free the Michigan Four!”

Republicans said the 6th Circuit is in “crisis,” noting that it has a case backlog in the thousands. Although It is the third-busiest court, it is the slowest, they said.

A Michigan-based advocacy group presented Frist with a petition containing 3,200 signatures of Michigan citizens who want to see movement on the Bush appointees.

The Michigan dispute is just the latest in a battle over judicial nominees, which has been raging all year.

Democrats have successfully mounted filibusters of both Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen, nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, respectively.

Frist has been unable to get cloture — which requires 60 votes and would allow the Senate to vote to confirm the nominees — on either judge, though he has tried six times for Estrada and twice for Owen.

Judicial watchers expect there to be more skirmishes down the road.

Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor has been nominated to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and is expected to be approved by the Judiciary Committee soon, but Republicans suspect Democrats will try to block him on the floor as well, according to a leadership aide.