Senate Panel Approves Controversial Appeals Court Nominee

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 2, 2004 (ENS) - Former Interior Department Solicitor and longtime mining and cattle industry lobbyist William Myers won partisan approval Thursday from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which voted 10-9 along party lines in favor of his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Democrats, who criticize Myers as an unqualified, anti-environmental ideologue, are expected to try and block his nomination when it comes up for a vote in the full Senate.

"The only conclusion I have been able to arrive at is that, if confirmed, Mr. Myers would be an anti-environmental activist on the bench," said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the ranking member of the committee. "He has a consistent record of using whatever position and authority he has had to fight for corporate interests at the expense of the environment and of the interests of the American people in environmental protections."

The 48 year old Idaho lawyer served as the Interior Department's top lawyer from 2001 through May 2003, when he returned to the law firm where he worked prior to his tenure at the department.

During the past two decades, Myers has lobbied for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the Public Lands Council and a host of mining companies. Myers

Judicial nominee William Myers. (Photo courtesy U.S. Government)
As Interior solicitor, Myers wrote a controversial legal opinion in an attempt to make it easier for companies to mine on public lands and encouraged legislation to privatize public lands without public compensation.

More than 180 conservation groups, Native American tribes, and other organizations actively oppose his nomination to the Ninth Circuit.

That opposition "speaks volumes about the concern that many potential litigants have about his views on a diverse range of issues that would come before his court," said Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.

Feingold noted that Myers has compared the management of public lands in the United States to King George's "tyrannical" rule over the American colonies.

"This nominee did not simply make a stray comment that can be interpreted as indicating strong personal disagreement with our nation's environmental laws," Feingold said, "he has a long record of extreme views on the topic."

Critics of Myers' nomination note that not a single member of the American Bar Association's committee that rates federal judicial nominees found him "well qualified" and more than a third rated him "unqualified."

Democrats will try to filibuster Myers' nomination when it comes up for a vote in the full Senate - they have successfully blocked six of 170 of the President's judicial nominees.

The issue has become one of the most politically divisive in Washington.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said the Idaho lawyer "deserves an up or down vote on the Senate floor."

"He is a highly respected attorney and a nationally recognized expert in natural resources and public lands law with extensive experience in these areas," Hatch said. "Furthermore he is an avid outdoorsman and a committed conservationist."

Democrats and others have unfairly criticized Myers' record at the Interior Department for representing policy positions they do not like, Hatch said, and for "daring to represent farmers, ranchers, and miners while in private practice."

Myers' environmental record is central to the debate over his qualifications and independence in part because of the key role the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals plays in environmental issues.

The court hears cases from Alaska and the western states, where environmental law concerning 485 million acres of public lands is decided. Bush

President George W. Bush says Democrats are unfairly blocking his judicial nominees. (Photo courtesy White House)
Judges on this bench are appointed for life - this level of the judiciary is superceded only by the U.S. Supreme Court and often provides the final decision on legal challenges to environmental rules and regulations.

Seldom does an environmental rule or regulation move forward without a lawsuit by environmental groups or by affected industries.

"The Bush administration has opened up our public lands to unprecedented destruction and exploitation by extractive industries," said Buck Parker, executive director of the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice. "In nominating William Myers to a seat on the [9th Circuit] ... the Bush administration is trying to preserve this harmful legacy well into the future."

Supporters of the nomination say Myers would restore balance to one of the most liberal federal courts in the nation.

Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig said Myers "knows and respects the law and will not legislate from the bench."

"Bill Myers is a strong, qualified nominee who will help bring balance to a very out-of-balance court, and is someone who deserves an affirmative vote in the United States Senate," Craig said.

A Senate vote on Myers' nomination has not been scheduled.