WASHINGTON — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, evoked a chorus of protest from Democrats and liberal groups Thursday when he opened a new front in the ongoing war over conservative judicial nominees.

Without a new hearing or consultation with Democrats, Hatch brought up for committee vote the once-rejected nomination of U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering of Mississippi to be elevated to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Democrats complained loudly, and used committee rules to delay that vote at least a week.

Last year when Democrats controlled the committee, it rejected Pickering's nomination on a 10-9 party-line vote amid charges that he is racist and too pro-life on abortion to follow the law. Hatch complained bitterly that the accusations are false, and said Pickering had enough votes in the full Senate to win confirmation.

When Republicans regained control of the Senate this year, President Bush renominated Pickering. Hatch vowed to have new hearings on him, and to put him in line for action — more or less — behind other nominations in order that they were received.

But when Hatch put Pickering on the agenda for a vote without a new hearing and ahead of other nominees, Democrats howled.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee's ranking Democrat, complained that the committee until this year had never reconsidered a rejected nominee, and even accused Hatch of racial insensitivity with his timing in attempting it now.

"Given the many concerns about Judge Pickering voiced by African-Americans in Mississippi and all over the country … it was most ill-advised to abruptly list the nomination at the time that the Congressional Black Caucus is involved in its Annual Legislative Conference," Leahy said.

He added that if Hatch and Republicans felt the record about Pickering is wrong, they should have held a new hearing to correct it. He noted that four of the 19 members on the committee have joined it since Pickering's last hearing.

Hatch made no response during the hearing, but has said he feels the record has shown Pickering deserves confirmation. For example, while some liberal groups attack him on civil rights, Hatch noted that Pickering, as a young attorney, testified against the Ku Klux Klan when it was dangerous to do so.

On Thursday, Hatch distributed a letter supporting Pickering from the top five statewide Democratic office holders in Pickering's native Mississippi, including Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, Attorney General Mike Moore and Secretary of State Eric Clark.

"Judge Pickering chose to take stands during his career that were difficult and often courageous. He has worked for racial reconciliation and helped unify our communities," they wrote. "Mississippi has made tremendous progress in race relations since the 1960s and Charles Pickering has been part of that progress."

Some liberal groups, meanwhile, protested Hatch's action.

National Women's Law Center Co-President Marcia D. Greenberger said "Judge Pickering's harsh record of hostility to women's rights and civil rights has not changed — and neither should the rejection of (his) nomination."

The new battle comes amid first-ever filibusters by Democrats against several of Bush's appeals court nominees. Miguel Estrada recently withdrew after having a final vote on him blocked for six months.

Ongoing filibusters have blocked final votes on nominees William Pryor and Carolyn Kuhl. Another filibuster is expected against Priscilla Owen, who was also rejected when Democrats controlled the committee.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Thursday, "Unfortunately, the era of obstructionism is not yet over in the Senate, and it appears that Judge Pickering will join a rapidly growing list of the president's nominees who are being denied a vote by the full Senate through the use of unprecedented filibusters."

Meanwhile, Democrats on Thursday also used rules to delay for at least a week a vote on another controversial nominee, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Henry W. Saad, nominated to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Both of Michigan's senators have opposed Saad, in protest of GOP blocking of Democrats to that court when Bill Clinton was president.

The committee only in rare instances proceeds with a nomination when both home-state senators oppose it. But Hatch is proceeding with Saad, saying Michigan's senators did not bring up good grounds to oppose him and are merely playing politics.


E-mail: leed@dgsys.com