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By Howard Metzenbaum   

Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) served
for 19 years in the U.S. Senate, where he
was a champion for working families and
an active member of the Senate Labor and Judiciary Committees.

Reprinted from the
AFL-CIO magazine
America @ Work
Overturning union elections and unfair labor practice charges. Striking down consumer and environmental protection rules. Denying public employees the right to recover lost wages from their employers when they are fired illegally from their jobs.

Actions by an anti-worker Bush administration? Not a bad guess.

In fact, they are decisions by federal judges—decisions with real-life consequences that affect the air we breathe, the food we eat and the jobs we do.

Federal judges—the 900 men and women who sit on our federal district courts, courts of appeals and U.S. Supreme Court—are appointed for life. They are responsible for deciding and enforcing a whole host of constitutional rights and statutory protections—the right to free speech, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to receive minimum wages and to join a union. They review rules and decisions by federal agencies aimed at protecting our health and safety and the environment.

When I served on the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, we had our share of fights over extremist judicial appointments by Presidents Reagan and Bush. We fought and stopped the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court and Kenneth Ryskamp’s nomination to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and we tried to defeat several other nominees because we felt their views were too far out of the mainstream for lifetime appointments to our federal courts.

The fights were tough. And we didn’t always win. But they were fights that needed to be made, because the rights and protections at stake are so important.

With the Senate now in Republican hands, the Bush administration and its Senate allies are moving quickly to pack the courts with ultra-conservative appointees. If they get their way, the federal judiciary will be thrown out of balance for a generation or more to come, jeopardizing a whole range of rights and protections that we hold dear. We could stop extremist appointments if a few moderate Republicans were willing to stand in their way. Will they have the guts to do so? I’m not too optimistic.

Several U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals—the highest courts in the land after the Supreme Court—hang in the balance. For example, the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which hears the majority of cases involving employer appeals from unfair labor practice decisions by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), currently is evenly divided between Republican and Democratic appointees. The balance on the court will be completely destroyed if President George W. Bush succeeds in pressuring senators to confirm ultra-conservatives to the four vacancies now on that court.

Or take the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. In the 1990s, Senate Republicans blocked three of President Clinton’s picks for that court—including Michigan Judge Helene White, who was left waiting for four years without so much as a hearing.

Republicans have conveniently forgotten how they treated Clinton’s appointees and are now pushing for quick confirmation of Bush’s nominees to those very seats.

The midterm elections might have given Republicans a bare one-vote majority in the Senate, but they did not give this president or this Senate a mandate to pack the courts and skew the federal judiciary for generations to come.

But it’s up to all of us to keep this from happening.

All that is standing between Bush and his agenda for an ultra-conservative takeover of the federal courts—including the U.S. Supreme Court—is the U.S. Senate.

When they were in the majority last year, Senate Democrats drew the line and rejected extremist nominees like Charles Pickering (a Mississippi judge with a troubling record in civil rights cases and who sought to reduce the sentence of a convicted cross burner) and Priscilla Owen (who a broad coalition of Texans opposed because of her anti-worker, anti-consumer and anti-choice record).

Now that the president’s party controls the Senate, senators likely will need to resort to the filibuster to block extremist appointees and to force moderation on the part of the White House.

It is time for them to stand up and speakout—but senators will not take such strong action unless they hear from their constituents.

We need to mobilize and make our voices heard on the importance of a fair and balanced judiciary—about the need to hold the line against a takeover of the federal courts by extremist nominees who do not represent mainstream America. Write and call your senators. Talk with them when they are home. Tell them you are depending on them to protect the courts and protect your rights.