Jewish Groups Lose on Three Judges

The Senate didn’t go nuclear this week, which was good news for those worried that a proposed rule changing barring filibusters on judicial nominations could produce congressional chaos. But the news wasn’t as good for the handful of Jewish groups that have been fighting against some of President George W. Bush’s conservative judicial nominees.

On May 23, 14 moderate Democrats and Republicans signed an agreement to invoke cloture, thereby ending filibusters, on three controversial Bush nominees: Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor and Priscilla Owen.

In return, the 14 swing voters — seven from each party — agreed that “nominees should only be filibustered under extraordinary circumstances, and each signatory must use his or her own discretion and judgment in determining whether such circumstances exist.”

And in light of that commitment, the group pledged to “oppose the rules changes in the 109th Congress” threatened by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

What that means is that a handful of controversial nominees are likely to be approved quickly, but also that the so-called “nuclear option” of changing the Senate rules on the filibuster is being abandoned, at least for now, because there won’t be enough Republicans to support it.

Democrats and liberal Jewish groups hope this also means President Bush will start making more moderate appointments; groups on the religious right were incensed, charging Frist with a cave-in.

“Compromises are by their nature ugly creatures,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), which has opposed several nominees because of their records on civil rights, women’s rights and abortion rights. “But there’s one very big positive: It means the nuclear option is off the table. That is very important.”

But he conceded this means several nominees the RAC has opposed are likely to be confirmed.

“I don’t know how I could look at anything that paves the way for Owen, Brown and Pryor to get lifetime appointments as a victory,” he said.

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which led the fight against anti-abortion rights judges, expressed similarly mixed feelings.

“Clearly we are extremely disappointed that this compromise could pave the way for the confirmation of three particularly egregious nominees,” NCJW President Phyllis Snyder said in a statement. “However, we are gratified by the successful effort made by our grass roots who, united with like-minded Americans across the country, spoke out to preserve our system of checks and balances.”

NCJW Washington Director Sammie Moshenberg said that while the Democrats have abandoned the filibuster option regarding some specific judges, the agreement may have changed the politics of the debate over future judicial nominations.

“Before, there were maybe two Republicans moderate enough to go after on judicial nominations,” she said. “Now we have seven Republicans who have agreed to work in a bipartisan fashion. So we have at least the potential for approaching these lawmakers and working with them.”