Politics may complicate federal court pick

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

It’s hard to say when north Mississippi federal courts will get a replacement for District Judge W. Allen Pepper Jr.
Pepper, 70, of Cleveland died suddenly Tuesday of a heart attack.
To become a federal judge, an attorney must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Washington insiders with experience about such appointments were hesitant to speak publicly so soon after the judge’s death.
But a University of Mississippi journalism professor with longtime political perspective said anything can happen in a presidential election year, even in a very Republican-voting state with a Democrat seeking re-election.
“In an election year, with Republicans hoping to regain the White House, they’re hardly inclined to give serious consideration to any judicial nomination that Obama or other Democrats might be pushing,” said Joe B. Atkins.
“Back in the days of Boll Weevil and Blue Dog Democrats, there was more of a chance. Those days are gone. So, my guess is it’s a wait-and-see-till-November situation at the least.”
Chief Judge Michael P. Mills said Tuesday, soon after learning about Pepper’s death, that he and the court’s three other judges will divide up cases that were under Pepper’s supervision. He said priority will go to criminal cases.
In the Northern District, judges hear cases in Oxford, Aberdeen and Greenville.
But Mississippi has experience with at least one judicial appointment that doesn’t track that course.
In 2003, President George W. Bush used a recess appointment to grant Judge Charles Pickering of Laurel a spot on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
His move came two years after Democrats stalled Pickering’s nomination by keeping Republicans from getting the votes needed to break a filibuster in the GOP-controlled Senate. Pickering’s confirmation previously failed when Democrats were in charge of the chamber.
A recess appointment, though, must win approval by the end of the year if the appointee is to remain in office.
Typically, when a judicial vacancy occurs, that state’s senators will confer and suggest nominees to the White House.
Pepper’s funeral service will be Saturday in Cleveland.
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com