Southwick sails past Dems

Senate Democratic leaders failed to stop the confirmation of Judge Leslie Southwick to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th District Wednesday, demonstrating to liberal groups an inability to find a winning strategy to prevail on the controversial nomination.

If the Senate Democrats could not figure out how to make a deal to derail Southwick with his poor record on civil rights — even post-Katrina and post-Jena 6 — how will they be able to force President Bush to draw down the war in Iraq?

The Southwick cloture vote was 62-35, with three Democrats defecting on the final confirmation 59-38 roll call.
Perhaps the reality is Democratic leaders have to save their chits for bigger fights. Ending the Iraq war — and preventing an ill-conceived U.S. invasion of Iran — is a bigger deal to the Democratic base at this point than judges.

Judicial confirmations are a red-meat cause for the right and it is very clear where the GOP base stands on judges. The activist left was organized in its formal opposition; the coalition included the AFL-CIO, Alliance for Justice, Americans for Democratic Action, Congressional Black Caucus, Human Rights Campaign, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, National Council of Jewish Women and People for the American Way.

Liberal warhorse Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a statement after the vote that Southwick’s “appalling record on civil rights and the rights of employees who challenge corporate abuses does not qualify him for a lifetime appointment to a federal court of appeals.”

Given that, why were the Democrats unable to stop Southwick? Did the Bush White House just wear them down? Previously Bush tapped Charles Pickering and Michael Wallace to the seat. Their nominations were eventually withdrawn after the coalition rallied strong opposition to their records. Clearly the Democrats did not have the stomach to continue to play hardball on Southwick.

One theory out there on Southwick is simply fear of how these judicial votes could be used to defeat Democrats. With the Southwick victory, President Bush wants more up-or-down votes on stalled nominees.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidPentagon forming task force to investigate military UFO sightings Kamala Harris makes history — as a Westerner McConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill MORE (D-Nev.) said from the floor Wednesday that “the judicial vacancy rate is currently at an all-time low,” telling Bush, basically, to chill.

But Reid is not escaping from the Southwick debacle without some criticism. From what I hear, the rap on Reid on this one is he was too hands-off on Southwick.

He spoke eloquently against the nomination from the Senate floor. “Opposition to the nomination of Judge Leslie Southwick for the 5th Circuit Court is neither partisan nor political. It lies deep within the fundamental American commitment to civil justice and equal rights. In the past few weeks, our nation has seen the reoccurrence of racial issues that we had perhaps assumed, and certainly all hoped, were behind us. Yet the recent events in Jena, La., and at the U.S. Coast Guard — where nooses were hung to intimidate, demean and belittle people of color — demonstrate that issues of race and intolerance are sorrowfully still present in our society.”

The right sentiment. But Southwick did not get blocked.

Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. E-mail: