Democratic Senate confirms Bush judicial nominee

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WASHINGTON, Oct 24 (Reuters) The Democratic-led US Senate today confirmed a Mississippi judge to a federal appeals court, giving President George W Bush a rare victory this year in his drive to put more conservatives on the appellate bench.

By a vote of 59-38, the Senate approved Bush's long-stalled nomination of Mississippi Judge Leslie Southwick to the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

The vote came just minutes after 49 Republicans -- joined by 12 Democrats and one independent -- mustered 62 votes, two more than needed, to clear a Democratic procedural roadblock.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona interrupted his presidential campaign to return to the Capitol to voice support for the 57-year-old nominee and take a political shot at White House challengers.

''Liberals, including the Democratic presidential candidates, are opposing Judge Southwick because they know he will strictly interpret the law rather than make it from the bench,'' said McCain, who described the nominee as a fair-minded judge and a brave veteran who volunteered to serve in Iraq.

Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Richard Durbin of Illinois helped lead the charge against Southwick. Durbin noted that at Southwick's confirmation hearing, he had asked the judge to name a time when he took an ''an unpopular point of view on behalf of those who were voiceless or powerless and needed someone to stand-up for their rights.'' ''He couldn't come up with anything,'' Durbin said. ''It's troubling.'' Democrats won control of the Senate last November, promising to block extremist judicial nominees and demand mainstream candidates.

Since they took the helm in January, the Senate has confirmed just four of Bush's 14 appeals court nominees.

Critics accuse Democrats of slowing down consideration of the candidates, hoping to run out the clock on the president, whose term ends in January 2009.

Republicans note the Senate moved far quicker on appeals court nominees during the final two years of the previous three presidents, confirming an average of 17.

Backers of Southwick argued he deserved to be confirmed, pointing out he has broad support in Mississippi and had received the American Bar Association's highest rating.

Liberal and civil rights groups opposed Southwick. They charged that as a state appeals judge for 13 years he consistently sided with business over workers and consumers.

Sen Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, crossed party lines to vote for Southwick, saying, ''We have seen too much delay and controversy over qualified nominees for too many years.'' In 2005, a bipartisan group of 14 senators reached an accord to avert a potentially crippling showdown in the Senate over a number of Bush's then-stalled judicial nominees.

They agreed to preserve the right of Democrats to filibuster the president's judicial candidates, but only under ''extraordinary circumstances.'' Sen Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who was the Democratic leader of this ''Gang of 14,'' backed Southwick, as did a number of other members of the group, including independent Sen Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

Reuters AE DB2240

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