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Civil rights groups mobilize against judicial nominee

WASHINGTON—National civil rights groups have taken an unusual lead role in an effort to keep Federal District Judge Terrence Boyle off the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., saying his elevation would be "devastating" to racial progress.

Boyle's congressional redistricting decisions in North Carolina more than a decade ago are one of the central grievances cited in the campaign to derail his confirmation. He and two other federal appeals court nominees will appear Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The opposition to Boyle comes as President Bush tries a second time to get some of his stalled judicial nominees through a determined Senate. The attempt has provoked Democrats on Capitol Hill, and some even have suggested that Bush should withdraw the renewed nominations.

Some Republicans have warned that they're considering changing the Senate rules to bar the use of filibusters to block judicial candidates, an unlikely action that would cause great turmoil in the Senate.

Earlier this week, the Judiciary Committee held hearings on William G. Myers, a nominee to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who's also been opposed by civil rights groups but has drawn the most fire from environmental groups protesting his tenure at the Interior Department.

Civil rights groups have played a background role in supporting all 10 filibusters that have been mounted against judicial nominees while squabbles over other issues, such as abortion, have taken precedence. But Boyle, like Mississippi Judge Charles Pickering, has civil rights groups particularly concerned, and ready to go to the mat.

"Boyle is non-negotiable from our standpoint," said Wade Henderson, the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of the largest civil rights organizations. "The substance here is important. This is a judge committed to the Old South, a friend of (former North Carolina Republican Senator) Jesse Helms, who helped keep black judges off the 4th Circuit."

In the early1990s, North Carolina wanted to create a congressional district where an African-American had a strong chance of getting elected. Boyle thought the boundaries were drawn with race too prominently in mind. As part of a three-judge panel, he twice declared the district unconstitutional—and was twice reversed by the Supreme Court.

Henderson cites the redistricting issue and other rulings that he believes demonstrate Boyle's insensitivity to employment discrimination, equal access for people with disabilities and gender discrimination. He quotes from opinions in which Boyle questions such things as the federal government's authority to enforce civil rights laws and the scope of laws intended to address subtle forms of discrimination.

He points out that Boyle has been reversed 150 times by the 4th Circuit—considered one of the country's most conservative—and the Supreme Court.

"I think we're talking about a judge whose competency may be at issue as well," Henderson said.

In North Carolina, where Boyle, 59, has been a federal district judge since 1984, some longtime Democrats have come to his defense. They say he's a good judge who shouldn't be defined by his brief association with Helms. Boyle worked as Helms' legislative assistant in 1973.

Like their national counterparts, North Carolina civil rights groups oppose Boyle's nomination. Other traditional allies of the Democratic Party, including liberal trial lawyers and environmental groups, give Boyle glowing reviews.

Wade Smith, a Raleigh trial lawyer who chaired the state Democratic Party in the mid-1980s, said Boyle was fair.

"He sits squarely in the middle and holds the government's feet to the fire, making sure they do what the law requires," Smith said. Smith can be in Boyle's court representing "a communist or the common people, the poorest of the poor, and he's always fair," the lawyer said.

Boyle's nomination has sparked some unlikely coalitions in his home state. Groups representing police officers and state troopers are joining the civil rights groups in opposing him.

At a news conference Wednesday in Raleigh and in letters to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the North Carolina Police Benevolent Society criticized Boyle for a series of rulings that it charged further penalized officers who'd been disciplined by their managers for telling the truth in court.

"There are many, many fine Republican judges that are qualified (for the 4th Circuit)," said executive director John Midgette, whose group had never before opposed a judicial nominee. "This is not a partisan issue to us."

Boyle is rated well-qualified by the American Bar Association and has the backing of the Committee for Justice and the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary, two Washington-area groups that favor conservative nominees.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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