WASHINGTON-- After being left hanging longer than any other judicial nominee in modern history, Richard A. Paez is likely to be confirmed this week to a seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
President Clinton first nominated Paez, 52, a federal judge in Los Angeles, in January 1996. He was renominated in the next two sessions of Congress and approved twice by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but his appointment has been blocked by conservatives from getting a vote on the Senate floor.That vote could come as early as Wednesday, along with a confirmation vote on Marsha Berzon, a San Francisco lawyer who has nominated two years ago to the 9th Circuit but also ran into opposition from senators who found her too liberal.
Paez's supporters say the vote will be very close, but it now appears they have enough Republicans to carry the day. The Berzon vote also could go down to the wire.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, backed Paez in both votes in his panel, and is expected to support him again. Fellow Utah Republican Bob Bennett has indicated he will go along with Hatch's decision, and Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., says that absent evidence that Paez is unqualified, he will respect the president's decision.
Moderate Sens. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. and James Jeffords, R-Vt., say they'll back the nominee, and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., voted for him in committee. With all 45 Democrats behind the nomination, that would give Paez a majority.
"They're going to be close votes . . . but I think we can win both of those votes," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
The Paez nomination has been particularly sensitive for Republicans. His opponents say he is too liberal, pointing to statements he has made about California propositions to deny benefits to illegal immigrants and end affirmative action programs. There's also a perception among conservatives that the 9th Circuit, which covers an immense area of California and other Western states, is already too activist in its decisions.
But Democrats have hit hard on claims that the holdup on Paez, who is Hispanic, reflects a Republican tendency to be tougher on minority nominees.
"Some people don't want these folks on the court," Clinton told an audience of Hispanic leaders recently at the White House, referring to his appointments of Paez and other Hispanics.
"The wait has been humiliating and unnecessary" for a judge strongly endorsed by attorney and law enforcement groups, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and a leader in criticizing Republicans for what Democrats say is the GOP's slow pace in taking up judicial nominations.
"The statistics are that minorities and women take longer with the Senate since the Republicans took over. Maybe it's a coincidence but he's had to wait longer than anybody in history," Leahy said of Paez.
Republicans have vehemently denied charges of bias.