Court Declines to Intervene on Judicial Appointment That Bypassed Senate ; Judicial Appointments Made by Bush during Congressional Recess Are Controversial, but in This Case the Supreme Court Lets the Practice Stand

Article excerpt

The US Supreme Court has sidestepped a brewing street brawl between Senate Democrats and the White House over the future composition of the federal judiciary - and potentially of the high court itself.

On Monday the justices declined to take up three cases challenging President Bush's recess appointment last year of William Pryor to fill a federal appeals court vacancy in the face of a Democratic filibuster of the nomination. The announcement came as Chief Justice William Rehnquist returned to the court to preside over oral arguments after having missed several months during cancer treatments. The chief justice's illness has fueled speculation that he may retire soon.

The recess appointment cases were significant because they were seen as a possible test of whether Mr. Bush would be free to use the authority to bypass attempts by Senate Democrats to stall judicial nominations indefinitely - including at the high court.

In an two-page explanation of the court's refusal to take up one of the recess appointment cases, Justice John Paul Stevens cautioned court-watchers - and by extension the White House - against reading its denial to hear the case as a constitutional green light for similar recess appointments in the future. No other justices joined Stevens in a statement on the issue. So it remains unclear how the justices might line up should the court decide to rule on the constitutional issue later.

By declining to take up a case challenging Mr. Pryor's February 2004 recess appointment to the federal appeals court in Atlanta, the justices have let stand an 8-2 decision upholding a broad interpretation of the president's authority. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and others argued in court papers that the Constitution's recess appointment power should be construed narrowly to forbid the president from making appointments such as Mr. Pryor's.

At issue is whether the Constitution stipulates that the president may make recess appointments only during the Senate's annual December-January adjournment, which marks the end of a congressional session. …