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Close vote on judge has message for Nov. 2

Leon Holmes won confirmation to the federal judiciary on a 51-46 Senate vote.Associated Press
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Sen. John Edwards and Sen. John Kerry missed Tuesday’s night’s Senate vote on President Bush’s nomination of J. Leon Holmes to be a federal district judge.

In the flurry of news media coverage of Kerry and Edwards, many voters may have missed the Holmes news too.

Holmes, a zealous anti-abortion activist and a lawyer from Little Rock Ark., won a seat on the federal bench by a nail-biting 51-46 vote.

Holmes’ victory suggests why it will be very difficult for the Kerry-Edwards ticket to win Arkansas and its six electoral votes on Nov. 2. In Arkansas, a judicial nominee with such unabashedly conservative views is not “out of the mainstream,” to use the Democrats’ favorite phrase when it comes to President Bush's judicial nominees.

Holmes will be a trial judge presiding over proceedings involving drug dealers and business executives accused of fraud; he won’t be fashioning new trends in constitutional law as Supreme Court justices do.

But the very fact that his nomination was contested at all shows just how deeply the animosity over judicial nominations has seeped into Senate deliberations.

District court nominees used to be confirmed by the Senate without a roll call vote; many still are.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Democrats such as Sen. Charles Schumer of New York and Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts condemned Holmes’ views on abortion and especially his statement in a 1997 article he co-authored with his wife and published in a Catholic diocesan newspaper, that “the wife is to subordinate herself to the husband … and [that] the woman is to place herself under the authority of the man.” 

Abortion, Holmes said in 1980, “is the simplest issue this country has faced since slavery was made unconstitutional. And it deserves the same response.” 

Making the case for Holmes were his two home state senators, both Democrats, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor.

“If you vote for Leon Holmes, you’re not anti-woman,” Pryor assured his fellow senators moments before the vote. Arkansas lawyers and others who know Holmes well support him, Pryor said. “They think he’ll be a fair, impartial and excellent member or the bench.”

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama came to Holmes’ defense, saying his statements on women came from St. Paul’s epistles and from traditional Roman Catholic doctrine.

Implying Holmes’ adversaries were anti-Catholic, Sessions asked “Do we now feel that we should vote against that person because we don’t agree with his religious beliefs? Very, very dangerous to do that.”

As a judge, Holmes would follow legal precedents, no matter what his religious views, Sessions said.

40 Democrats vote 'no'
Forty Democrats, plus independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont who usually votes with the Democrats, voted against Holmes.

Asked whether the large Democratic vote against Holmes would have negative resonance for the Kerry-Edwards ticket back in her home state where support for Holmes is strong, Lincoln indicated she didn’t think so.

For some northern Republicans and some Republican women, Holmes was apparently too much to bear: Voting “no” were Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Sen. John Warner of Virginia and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

But voting for Holmes were six Democrats: his two home-state backers, plus Sens. John Breaux and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia (who is supporting Bush and has been given a prime speaking spot at the GOP convention).

In Arkansas, Nebraska, Georgia, and Louisiana, Holmes’ views are not necessarily anathema, and it is no coincidence that Bush stands a very good chance of winning all four of those states, just as he did in 2000.

Specter backs Bush
Also voting “yes” in loyal support of the president was Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who got a scare in April when conservative Rep. Pat Toomey nearly beat him in the primary. One issue in the Specter-Toomey race: Specter’s support of the Roe v. Wade abortion decision and Toomey’s opposition to it.

Bush trekked to Pennsylvania to campaign for Specter, perhaps figuring that a centrist such as Specter had a better chance of keeping the Senate seat than Toomey would.

If one of Bush’s electoral map problems is carrying Pennsylvania (with its 21 electoral votes), one of Kerry’s biggest is carrying any of the Southern states (with a total of 153).

It would be unprecedented if the Democratic candidate won the presidency without carrying any Southern states. Kerry picked a Southerner as his running mate but can he crack the South?

If most Arkansans support a staunch conservative such as Holmes, perhaps a majority of them will also support Kerry only if he can keep the campaign focus far away from social issues.