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Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords doesn’t sit on the Judiciary Committee, but his defection from the GOP last week has set a new course for the committee and President George W. Bush’s judicial candidates. “This changes every little thing,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the committee and a vocal opponent of many of Bush’s conservative picks. “In fact, it changes the little things more than the big things.” It’s the little things that count in the committee, the gateway to Senate confirmation for judicial and Justice Department nominees. From “blue slips” that can block a nominee from getting a confirmation vote to the role of the American Bar Association — and from the membership of the committee itself to the future composition of the federal district and circuit courts — most everything was promised a new look after Jeffords’ stunning move. One major matter that may not change much is what will happen if and when President George W. Bush gets to nominate someone for the U.S. Supreme Court. To be sure, Bush’s judge-pickers will have to consider the Democrats’ control of the Senate if and when the time comes to choose a new justice. But it’s doubtful the Democrats would use procedural gimmicks to keep a Supreme Court nominee from getting an up-or-down vote. When it comes to judges for the trial and appellate courts, though, it’s likely the dynamics will shift noticeably. As a result of the switch, Democrats will have a one-member majority on the committee. The new committee chairman, expected to be Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will be the arbiter of the committee’s blue slip policy. The blue slip is the form senators from a judicial nominee’s home state sign to register their approval — and more controversially, their disapproval — of a nominee. Leahy would undoubtedly enforce his interpretation of the rule, one he argues Republicans used for the past six years to hold up some of President Clinton’s choices: No judicial nominee may move forward without positive blue slips from both home-state senators. Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, soon to be the former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says he’s always given “great weight” to negative blue slips, but argued that Leahy’s hard-and-fast policy would abuse senatorial courtesy and give too much power to individual senators. With Jeffords’ defection, however, the blue-slip debate is effectively over, and Democrats could use the threat of negative blue slips to convince the White House not to nominate conservatives. Among those in jeopardy are Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., and Sidley, Austin, Brown & Wood litigator Peter Keisler. Both have been prominently mentioned, though not nominated for spots on appeals courts. California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer has said Cox is too conservative to have her support for a spot on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Maryland Democrats Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski have urged the White House not to nominate Keisler. They oppose the former law clerk to then-D.C. Circuit Judge Robert Bork and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy on the grounds that he is not a member of the bar in Maryland, where a seat on the 4th Circuit sits vacant. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., expects some Bush nominees to get hostile hearings, similar to the one Attorney General John Ashcroft endured in January. But considering that a Senate largely controlled by Republicans confirmed 374 of Clinton’s judicial nominees, Sessions added, “I have to believe the Democrats are not going to use this one-seat advantage to block wholesale nominations. “They know, just as the Republicans knew, you have to bring those judges up and vote on them sooner or later,” he said. One Bush administration source found a silver lining in the loss of GOP control. In a 50-50 Senate, the source said, “Everything was a muscle-flexing exercise,” adding that now Democrats will be held more accountable and won’t be able to be completely obstructionist. The Democrats say they plan to revive the role of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, which since 1953 advised presidents on judicial picks before the nomination was made public. Bush removed the ABA from its role in March, theoretically speeding up the confirmation process and satisfying conservatives who objected to the group’s perceived liberal bias. But Leahy is expected not to call a hearing until the ABA committee has a chance to review a nominee’s qualifications, a process that usually takes about one month. As another result of Jeffords’ move, the Judiciary Committee’s makeup will have to be renegotiated. Currently split 9-9, the committee may drop Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky or add a new Democrat in order to fashion the new majority. Before Jeffords switched parties, Bush added five more judicial nominees to the list before the committee, making a total of 14 circuit court nominations and two district court nominations. The new nominees are: Sharon Prost, Republican chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit; Lavenski Smith, former Arkansas Supreme Court justice, for a seat on the 8th Circuit; William Riley, a litigator in Lincoln, Neb.’s Fitzgerald, Schorr, Barmettler & Brennan, for a Nebraska seat on the 8th Circuit; Boone, Karlberg & Haddon partner Sam Haddon; and U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard Cebull, for U.S. District Court seats in Montana.

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