WASHINGTON -- In an election-year slap at filibustering Democrats, President Bush sidestepped Congress yesterday and installed Judge Charles Pickering of Mississippi to the federal appeals court after a battle filled with racial, religious, and regional argument.
Bush elevated Pickering by recess appointment, simply putting him in office while Congress was out of session. Such appointments, bypassing confirmation, are valid until the next Congress takes office, in this case in January 2005.
Bush's action will re-ignite the battle between Republicans and Democrats over the direction of the federal courts, a fight already sure to be intense this year because of the presidential election.
If not confirmed by the Senate before the end of the year, Pickering would probably retire, supporters suggested.
Pickering, a 66-year-old federal trial judge whom Bush nominated for a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, has been waiting two years for confirmation. But Democrats have repeatedly blocked Republican efforts to bring the nomination to a vote in the Senate.
"I'm grateful to the president for his continued confidence and support," Pickering said from his home in Mississippi. "I look forward to serving on the Fifth Circuit."
He was being sworn in in Jackson, Miss., last night.
Democrats have accused Pickering of supporting segregation as a young man and promoting antiabortion and antivoting rights views as a state lawmaker.
The Democrats can be expected to use the appointment to try to paint Bush as insensitive to minorities during the election campaign.
"The president's recess appointment of this anti-civil rights judge the day after laying a wreath on the grave of Martin Luther King is an insult to Dr. King, an insult to every African-American, and an insult to all Americans who share Dr. King's great goals," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts. "It serves only to emphasize again this administration's shameful opposition to civil rights."
Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate, told an audience of 150 at a campaign stop in Guttenberg, Iowa, "Here we are on a weekend before a national holiday when we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday, and George W. Bush celebrates it by apponting Charles Pickering -- a known forceful advocate for a cross-burner in America -- to the federal court in the United States."
Republicans in turn have accused Democrats of religious bias against Bush's antiabortion nominees. They also have accused the Democrats of being biased against Southerners.
Pickering has strongly denied allegations of racial insensitivity. "For 25 years I have strongly advocated that African-Americans and whites should sit down and talk in a positive and constructive manner to try to promote better understanding. This I've done," Pickering said after a meeting with the Mississippi Black Caucus last year.
The Republicans acknowledged yesterday that Bush's action would make it harder to get Pickering and perhaps other judicial nominees through the Senate. But "it's hard to know how it could be worse than it is now," said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Pickering was a better choice than the other blocked nominees for a recess appointment because of his age, said Senator John Kyl, Republican of Arizona. "Judge Pickering has a long and distinguished career." Serving on the "Fifth Circuit would be a wonderful capstone for his career if he is not made permanent."
Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, said he would continue to try to win a permanent position for the judge. "The unwavering determination that Judge Pickering has displayed in the face of these unfair and now discredited attacks shows all the more what an outstanding individual he is," Lott said.
The Fifth Circuit handles appeals from Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana, and the federal judges on that circuit have been trailblazers on desegregation and voting rights.
Pushing for Pickering's confirmation last year, Bush said: "He is a good, fair-minded man, and the treatment he has received by a handful of senators is a disgrace. He has wide, bipartisan support from those who know him best."
Democrats have used the threat of a filibuster to block six US Appeals Court nominees this congressional term: Pickering; Alabama's attorney general, William Pryor; Judge Priscilla Owen of Texas; Miguel Estrada, a Hispanic lawyer; and Judges Carolyn Kuhl and Janice Rogers Brown of California.
Frustrated at the delays, Estrada withdrew his nomination in September.
Patrick Healy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.