updated 10/5/2004 6:54:47 PM ET 2004-10-05T22:54:47

The Republican-led House voted Tuesday to break up the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, an action opponents said was motivated by conservatives’ ire over some of the court’s rulings.

Nine states are covered by the 9th Circuit, but the legislation would leave just California and Hawaii in a revamped lineup.

The proposal would divide the seven other states into two new courts: one to handle appeals from Arizona, Idaho, Montana and Nevada and the other to oversee Alaska, Oregon and Washington.

Supporters said the new lineup reflected the need to address the region’s bulging caseload and rapid population growth. They denied the vote was an expression of displeasure with rulings by the court, including the 2002 opinion that declared the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional when recited in public schools.

“The need to split the 9th Circuit is undeniable. It has grown so rapidly that we will have to split this court,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.

However, the measure, which passed by a vote of 205-194, was not expected to become law because of strong opposition in the Senate. It is part of a larger bill that passed by voice vote and would create 58 new judgeships across the nation.

Election-year politics charged
Opponents said the legislation’s certain death in the Senate was evidence that Republicans were more interested, in the words of Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., in providing “campaign-season cannon fodder” to their political base than in passing a bill that would relieve overburdened federal courts.

Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., described 9th Circuit judges as activists who were “legislating from the bench.”

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and a majority of 9th Circuit judges say the split is unnecessary.

Most of the 21 California Republicans in the House initially opposed the measure, and their votes would have ensured its defeat. But at least 10 Californians changed their votes to “yes” after huddling on the House floor, while five Republicans maintained their opposition.

“We don’t want to create a hyper-liberal court in California” by putting the court’s more conservative judges in the two new circuits, said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who was among the vote-switchers.

Lawmakers were reassured that the new 9th Circuit would be given seven new judgeships to dilute, in effect, what they see as its liberal leanings, Rohrabacher said.

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