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Southwick Approved by Senate After Long Fight

The Senate sidestepped a major showdown over stalled judicial nominations Wednesday when it confirmed the controversial nomination of Leslie Southwick to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Following a key test vote that won the support of all 49 Republicans and 13 Democrats, Senators then agreed 59-38 to give Southwick a lifetime appointment to the New Orleans-based federal bench. The first tally was most critical for Southwick since his confirmation hinged on meeting a 60-vote procedural hurdle to avert a filibuster and allow for Senate consideration of his nomination.

Republicans have been pushing for Southwick’s approval for months against wide Democratic resistance over his record on civil and human rights. In the end, however, GOP Senators were able to round up enough support from Democrats by offering to help them bargain with the Bush administration on upcoming spending bills and by appealing to what many described as a shared desire to keep the institution from falling into gridlock.

Another lift came from Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who while personally opposed to Southwick’s installment did little to whip his party against him. Sources noted that leading up to the vote Reid made a clear effort to tamp down the opposition rhetoric on his side of the aisle.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, said Reid “deserves credit for scheduling the vote. He had the power to keep it off.”

While most Senators were stoic in their response to the vote, Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) had difficulty fighting back tears, saying afterward that the outcome was “an emotional one for me — this is a good man” and said that Democrats who backed Southwick “took a chance and did the right thing.”

Lott — who received a call from President Bush Wednesday congratulating him on the vote — argued that Southwick was unfairly targeted and suffered through accusations of racial insensitivity that “maligned” their shared home state of Mississippi. Lott himself was subject to similar anti-racism furor in 2002 when he was forced to step down as Majority Leader following his remarks at the 100th birthday party of then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

In the end, 13 Democrats agreed Wednesday to beat back a filibuster and proceed to a final vote on Southwick. Of those, just three Democrats switched their votes on the second ballot and opposed the confirmation — Sens. Tom Carper (Del.), Ken Salazar (Colo.) and Daniel Inouye (Hawaii.).

The win makes Southwick the fifth U.S. circuit court nominee approved so far this year, far short of the one-per-month goal set by the Bush administration and Republicans. Yet Southwick, a former Mississippi appeals court judge, has been and is likely to be the most controversial appellate pick to come up this year.

His detractors are widespread and have been vocal, raising serious concerns about his involvement with two separate rulings involving minority and gay rights. His opponents also have argued that Southwick fails to add any diversity to the 5th Circuit.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), speaking before the vote, said all of those factors must be weighed when considering a lifetime appointment to the federal bench. Schumer said, “when we do so, we can’t have confidence that he’s a moderate jurist who will apply the law even-handedly.”

“Most disturbingly,” he added, “Judge Southwick’s judicial record offers no comfort that he understands or can wisely adjudicate issues relating to race, discrimination and equal treatment.”

Not all Democrats bought into that argument, however.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who joined Lott and other Republicans in helping rally Democrats to support the nominee, said the outcome was what he had hoped for and predicted. Nelson and Lott have been holding private, bipartisan meetings with moderate Senators for weeks to try to broker deals to advance Southwick’s nomination, as well as to find ways to unlock the legislative gridlock bedeviling the 110th Congress.

Nelson also was part of the now-defunct “Gang of 14,” which formed in 2005 to broker a deal to beat back filibusters on certain controversial judicial picks. Lott also was involved in the early creation of the gang but never was formally a member.

Nelson said Southwick’s qualifications notwithstanding, he believed the vote was successful because Senate Democrats understood the importance of allowing up-or-down votes on pending court nominations. “We need to preserve the institution — we don’t need to get at each other’s throats on procedural things.”