Mo. nominees win praise at Senate hearing

Friday, April 4, 2008

WASHINGTON -- Two state judges nominated to serve on the federal bench in Missouri won praise and faced few tough questions Thursday at a controversy-free Senate confirmation hearing.

Missouri Supreme Court Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr. and Circuit Court Judge David Gregory Kays of Lebanon spent less than an hour before the Senate Judiciary Committee, giving responses about their legal backgrounds and experience.

Limbaugh hopes to fill a vacancy on the federal district court in St. Louis, while Kays would fill an open seat on the district court in Kansas City. Both men have bipartisan support.

Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, a Republican who introduced both men, called Limbaugh "a gentleman" who comes from a distinguished family of judges and has won plaudits across the political spectrum. Bond praised Kays for having a sharp legal mind coupled with his "Midwesterner's modesty, earnestness and commitment to duty and service."

The state's junior senator, Democrat Claire McCaskill, also complimented the nominees.

"Maybe the right word for today is to say ditto," McCaskill joked, referring to Limbaugh's more famous cousin, conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and his fans known as ditto heads.

Noting that many residents of Lebanon may not share her political views, McCaskill said those who do have expressed support for Kays.

Both men pledged to be evenhanded and avoid injecting their personal views into proceedings. But neither shed much light on his judicial philosophy.

"We're asked to check our personal views at the door," Kays said.

They punted on a question from Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., about whether President Bush's so-called "signing statements" are legally valid. Such statements are used when the president signs a bill into law but notes portions he may ignore.

Limbaugh said he would seek guidance from appeals court rulings, while Kays said he was not familiar enough with legal precedents to offer an opinion.

Former governor John Ashcroft appointed Limbaugh in 1992 to the state high court, where he served as chief justice from 2001 to 2003. He was the prosecuting attorney in Cape Girardeau County from 1979 to 1982, and was appointed circuit judge in 1988 and re-elected in 1990.

Limbaugh's father, Stephen Limbaugh Sr., has been a federal judge in St. Louis since 1983 but plans to resign to avoid federal nepotism laws if his son is confirmed.

Kays became presiding circuit judge for the 26th Judicial Circuit in 2005. The court covers Camden, Laclede, Miller, Moniteau and Morgan counties. Previously, he was an assistant prosecutor for Laclede County in 1988 and was elected prosecutor in 1990. He was elected Lebanon city attorney in 1991 and became an associate circuit judge for Laclede County in 1994.

With no controversy surrounding either man, the nominees could see their nominations sent to a vote in the full Senate by summer. The American Bar Association, which rates all federal judicial candidates, gave Limbaugh its highest rating of "well qualified." Kays received a lower rating of "qualified" from the association's standing committee on federal judiciary, though a few members rated him "not qualified."

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the committee's top Republican, said he hoped the pace of judicial confirmations would not lag during Bush's final year in office, as has often happened during the waning years of past administrations.

"I do believe we need to proceed with the hearings and evaluations and vote up or down on these nominees," Specter said.

The committee's chairman, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, was not at the hearing, but said in a statement that the confirmation process is moving faster under his leadership than it did under Republican rule.

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