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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Judging Judges

Air Date: Week of

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Who’s up for consideration for life-time federal judgeships is usually an issue watched closely by civil rights, abortion and labor interests. But some of President Bush’s picks for the federal appeals courts have caught the attention of environmental groups. Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports from Washington.


ROSS: After weeks of delay and debate, the Senate Judiciary committee has given the green light to one of the Bush administration’s most contentious nominees for a federal judgeship, William Pryor. His nomination now heads for a full Senate vote. In response to Pryor’s and other judicial nominations, the environmental community has started to weigh in on the future balance of the courts. Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports.

Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor   

CHU: The U.S. Federal Appeals Courts are second only to the Supreme Court in handling judicial decisions. The judges who sit on these benches are lifetime presidential appointees. Meaning that whoever is confirmed to the 13 circuit courts will far outlast the tenure of the president.

NEECE: This is a public official who would be wielding influence for 40 or more years, interpreting the constitution of the land. This is as important a decision as the president and the senate ever makes.

CHU: Ralph Neece is president of the national social justice group called People for the American Way. Keeping track of judicial nominations is a high priority for the group, since protection of its members’ civil, abortion and labor interests hinge increasingly on the federal appeals courts. That’s also been the case in recent years with environmental issues, and Neece’s outfit has started recruiting environmental groups in its expanding coalition of judicial watchdogs.

NEECE: In recent months and recent years, the environmental organizations have become more and more of an important key player in the effort to save the courts. And without question, the next 16 months could determine what the environmental law and what a lot of the laws will be for the next two or three decades.

CHU: Glenn Sugameli is an attorney with Earthjustice, a national environmental law firm in Washington, D.C.

SUGAMELI: What we’re seeing is that the balance on a number of the courts is tipping against the environment.

CHU: Sugameli and others have been lobbying against several of Bush’s nominees, whom they say could threaten and repeal long-established environmental laws. At the top of the list is William Pryor, a 41-year-old attorney general for Alabama. He’s nominated to the 11th circuit, which oversees Florida and Georgia, as well as Alabama. Sugameli believes that Pryor’s environmental record indicates how he might make decisions as a federal judge.

SUGAMELI: Bill Pryor was the only state attorney general to file a legal challenge to the constitutionality of key Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act protections. He also testified to Congress that it was an invasion on the states to enforce the clean air act in cracking down on expansion of coal-fired power plants and utilities that harm downwind states. He also has a record of favoring corporations and failing to crack down on corporate pollution in Alabama.

CHU: Among Pryor’s staunchest supporters is Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who at a judiciary committee hearing, voiced the view of many from his party.

CORNYN: I believe that Mr. Pryor fully understands the different role of an advocate, as attorney general in a courtroom representing his state, and the role he would be called upon to play as a federal judge. That he understands the difference between his personal preferences and beliefs, and what the law is.

CHU: In addition to Pryor, environmental groups have also come out in opposition to Miguel Estrada to the D.C. circuit, whose nomination has been blocked by Senate Democrats. Among other concerns, environmental groups believe Estrada has too limited a public record to gauge his qualifications in environmental ruling. These groups also charge that Caroline Kuhl, if confirmed to the 9th circuit in California, would limit representation of parties claiming injury by industrial pollution.

Supporters of the president’s judicial nominees argue that such concerns are merely a type of litmus test for advocacy groups. Sean Rushton is executive director of the Committee for Justice, a group formed in 2002 specifically to support the president’s nominees.

RUSHTON: It’s only relatively recently that this kind of politicization of the judicial confirmation process has become the norm, where activist groups look at how is he on issue x y and z, and if he doesn’t have a history of ruling exactly as we want, we’re going to oppose him.

CHU: However, environmental groups contest that that’s not the case. Again, Glenn Sugameli of Earthjustice.

SUGAMELI: The people who’ve been nominated for judgeships by President Bush have not been our favorite. But we have not opposed a number of those because we think they’d be basically fair. But what you don’t want is a judge who will not give you a fair hearing and unfortunately there are such judges.

CHU: The Senate will vote on whether to confirm William Pryor, as well as other judicial nominees, in the next several months. For Living on Earth, I’m Jennifer Chu in Washington.

[MUSIC: Yo La Tengo “Danelectro 3” Danelectro Matador Records (2000)]

ROSS: Just ahead: Hot ads for a warming planet by cool people. Hollywood responds to global warming. You're listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: The Postal Service “Such Great Heights” Give Up Sub Pop (2003)]



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