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Senate Finally Approves Paez, Berzon for Judge Nominations

By Helen Dewar

The Senate Thursday approved the fiercely contested nominations of Californians Richard A. Paez and Marsha S. Berzon to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, concluding the longest wait by a judicial nominee in American history.

Although endorsed by legal and law enforcement groups and supported by Republican moderates, Paez and Berzon were bitterly opposed by GOP conservatives who charged that the two nominees were liberals who would accentuate what they call the left-leaning tilt of the nation’s largest appellate court.

With women’s and Hispanic groups lobbying hard for the two nominees, the high political stakes were underscored when Vice President Gore interupted a Midwestern campaign swing to be on hand in case he was needed to break a tie. The stakes were heightened even more when Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., tried unsuccessfully to bar Gore from voting, citing a “conflict of interest” arising out of a campaign finance case presided over by Paez.

But Gore’s vote was not needed. Paez, who currently sits on the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, was confirmed, 59-39. Berzon, who practices labor law in San Francisco, was approved, 64-34. By a 67-31 vote, Sessions lost an effort to delay the vote on Paez so the Senate could look further into Paez’ acceptance of what Sessions called a “sweetheart” plea bargain in the criminal case against Democratic fund-raiser John Huang.

The votes indicated opposition to the two nominees was confined largely to the conservative core of the Senate GOP. Some other lawmakers were concerned about offending women and Hispanic voters and about the consequences for likely Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, who is courting both groups.

Paez, whose family came originally from Mexico, has been awaiting Senate action since he was nominated in January, 1996 -- the longest wait in history, according to Senate aides. Berzon has been waiting two years.

Appearing at a news conference with Democrats after the vote, Gore opened his remarks by saying in Spanish, “Friends, today we’ve finally achieved justice,” and then decried what he called “a troubling pattern of the Republican Party standing against qualified judicial nominees who happen to be women and minorities.” Senate Republicans have bristled at such criticism, contending their record of confirming women and minorities is strong.