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Published Wednesday, May 2, 2001
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Helms softens stance on judges

Ends longtime block on N.C. appointment

Observer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- With a Republican in the White House, U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms said Tuesday he doesn't oppose adding a North Carolinian to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Helms, a Republican, spent eight years blocking nominations by President Bill Clinton to the court, arguing that adding more judges was a waste of taxpayer money.

But suddenly Helms is not so defiant. "It's his call," Helms told The Observer, referring to President Bush's anticipated nominations of at least one conservative North Carolinian to the court.

His flip-flop has angered Senate Democrats, including Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who vowed Tuesday to fight the GOP on President Bush's nominations to a variety of posts, including the 4th Circuit.

"I will use whatever procedural tool is available to make sure that there is balance in terms of the people going on the court," Edwards said. "After being blocked over eight years from even having a nominee considered for a vote, we're not now going to just roll over and let them put their people through."

The 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, Va., is considered the nation's most conservative appeals court. Its cases come from the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia and include Charlotte's school desegregation lawsuit.

The Senate, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, must confirm all presidential nominees for federal judgeships. That means the judiciary has become the chief venue for the ideological battle between liberals and conservatives.

While Clinton looked mostly for moderate nominees, in hopes of winning over Senate Republicans, Bush has made it his priority to find conservatives for the federal bench.

The president recently announced that he would end the long-held tradition of vetting potential judicial nominees through the American Bar Association, a change that angered Democrats.

The White House is expected to announce its first round of court nominations this month, and the list could include as many as two conservative N.C. jurists for the 4th Circuit: Terrence Boyle, a Helms protégé and federal district judge, and Bill Webb, an African American federal magistrate. Boyle is based in Elizabeth City, Webb in Raleigh.

Although North Carolina is the biggest state in the circuit, it has no judges on the court. And although the circuit's population is about a fourth black, there has never been a permanent black member of the court.

In 1999, Clinton nominated Judge James Wynn of the N.C. Court of Appeals. Helms blocked the nomination, keeping Wynn from becoming the court's first black member.

Edwards, who argued last year that it was crucial for North Carolina to have a representative on the appeals court, is prepared to filibuster if necessary to block a nominee he does not support ideologically.

Helms has long sought to win Boyle a seat on the 4th Circuit. He was angry when Democrats stifled Boyle's nomination by Bush's father when he was president. The Clinton White House tried to cut a deal with Helms during the president's second term to nominate Boyle plus two Democrats. The deal was rejected.

Wynn, whose nomination was pulled back by Bush after he took office in January, said Tuesday he is puzzled by Helms' new stance. During his interview with Helms in 1999, he said, the senator reacted angrily when Wynn suggested politics might be the real explanation for Helms' opposition.

"He was quite firm with me that this was not about politics, but that the circuit did not need any more judges," Wynn said. "I had no choice but to take him at his word."

Helms said Tuesday that he still believes the 4th Circuit does not need more judges. The court has 15 slots; 11 are filled.

The White House recently sent a letter to Helms acknowledging his stance, but saying the president intended to offer nominations. Helms' office has been working closely with the Bush team in selecting those nominees.

Edwards, who recommended Wynn to Clinton in 1999, said Tuesday that he has been shut out of the process. He said he had not talked to Helms about the Bush nominations.

"He's consistently told me in the past that there is no need for any additional judges on the court," Edwards said. "He's not told me that his opinion on that has changed."

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have been looking for ways to restrict their opponents' ability to obstruct court nominations.

In blocking Wynn, Helms relied on an arcane Senate tradition known as the "blue slip," the little piece of Carolina-blue paper on which two senators indicated their support for a nominee from their state. Both senators' approval was required for the full body to confirm a nominee, giving individual senators enormous power to stymie an appointment.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has said in recent weeks that he may alter the rule so both senators' approval is not required - in effect removing Edwards' ability to block a Bush nominee.

Senate Democrats met privately Tuesday and agreed to fight Hatch.

"At the 4th Circuit, if the nominee is out of North Carolina, obviously we'd want a blue slip from both senators," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "If the Republicans felt it was good enough for the Democrats, we feel it's good enough for the Republicans." Helms

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