WASHINGTON - The White House appealed to Maryland's two Democratic senators this week, asking them to let President Bush's choice for a vacancy on a federal appeals court go through the confirmation process - with or without their support.
Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel, made the request in a letter to Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski. Gonzales asked the senators not to block Peter D. Keisler, a Washington-based lawyer who lives in Bethesda, from a hearing and a Senate vote if he is nominated by Bush.
Gonzales noted the senators' complaints that Keisler, 40, lacks a strong enough record of civic leadership in Maryland to be named to what the senators consider a Maryland vacancy on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
But Gonzales asked that they meet with Keisler, an active conservative with bipartisan supporters, to allow him a chance to convince them that his record of "leadership nationally" outweighs home state connections as a qualification for an appellate court that hears cases from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
"If, after meeting with Mr. Keisler, you are still inclined to oppose him, I would ask that you allow your colleagues the opportunity to fairly evaluate Mr. Keisler's qualifications by not acting to block a hearing or a vote on his confirmation," Gonzales wrote.
Both senators said in interviews that they would extend Keisler the courtesy of a meeting. But they said they would continue to use their leverage in the evenly divided Senate to bar his confirmation to a seat, left vacant by the death last year of a Baltimore-based judge.
They note that Keisler has so little connection to the Maryland legal community that he is not even a member of the state bar.
"I'm happy to meet with him because it would give me an opportunity to explain directly to Keisler what my threshold standards are - which he doesn't meet," Sarbanes said.
Mikulski said: "No matter what they do, no matter what they ask, no matter what support they gin up, I am unalterably opposed to the nomination of Mr. Keisler. I will afford him the courtesy of a meeting, but he will not garner my support."
Keisler has earned high marks for his legal talents from such prominent Maryland Democrats as Stephen H. Sachs, a former state attorney general.
But because of the Maryland senators' opposition, Keisler's name was pulled from Bush's first batch of judicial nominees. Democratic leaders had warned that they would stand united to block the confirmation of any of Bush's judicial choices who lacked the support of both home state senators.
Gonzales contended that home state senators should not insist on their power to block nominees for appellate courts, which oversee several states. He further argued that Keisler "is a person of such exceptional intellect, character, integrity and legal ability that he merits appointment to the Fourth Circuit notwithstanding the concerns you have raised."