The New York Times and Washington Post lead with President Bush's recess appointment of Thomas Pickering to a federal appeals court. The Los Angeles Times leads with news that California lost 8,400 jobs in December. As with the rest of the nation, the state's unemployment persists in spite of rising consumer confidence, factory orders, corporate profits, and housing prices.
Bush's unilateral elevation of the Mississippi district court judge—whose appointment had been stymied by Senate Democrats for three years—lasts only until next January, when he must be confirmed or retire. Democrats had criticized Pickering's civil rights record—he once penned an anti-miscegenation article and opposed integration; in 1994 he tried to reduce the sentence of a cross-burner—but many Democrats and blacks in Mississippi have defended him. (The NYT notes that Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., was defeated for re-election in 2002 partly for opposing Pickering's nomination.) The NYT reminds that Senate Republicans blocked 114 Clinton appointments; the LAT reminds, inside, that Chief Justice Earl Warren was a recess appointment by President Eisenhower.
The NYT fronts NASA's announcement that it will no longer service the Hubble telescope, effectively condemning it to death in about 2007. (It had planned a shuttle refurbishment next year.) The agency's chief scientist called the Hubble the "best marriage of human spaceflight and science" and claimed the decision was based not on cost considerations but safety ones: If the shuttle were forced to have the space station examine its heat tiles midflight, it does not carry enough fuel to get there from the Hubble. But outside astronomers blamed the administration's plan to divert $11 billion to the moon-Mars mission. (A Hubble repair would cost over $500 million.) A new infrared space telescope will be launched in 2011, and earth-bound visual telescopes are increasing their range. (The Post broke this story Thursday but buried it; it runs a short wire story today, along with the LAT.)
Every paper fronts Michael Jackson's circus of an arraignment. (He pleaded not guilty.) About 1,000-1,500 people from all over the world came out to support the star, who danced with an umbrella atop his SUV outside the courthouse and invited the public to his Neverland ranch. (Guests had to sign confidentiality agreements before entering the grounds.) Some fans cried, others chanted "Michael Shall Overcome," and 40 fans even demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow (says the NYT). The judge admonished Jackson for arriving 20 minutes late, scolded him for excessive "liquid intake" when he requested a bathroom break, and denied his lawyers' request to break a media gag rule. But he granted the singer's request not to be present for all hearings and to delay the next pre-trial hearing by about two weeks. A news analysis inside the LAT observes:
By barring cameras from the courtroom, prosecutors allowed Jackson to pick the time and place for his close-up, and placed the courtroom, in effect, off stage. Jackson essentially threw a scarf over the light bulb and pretended the nice, burly bodyguards were escorting him to a concert.
The NYT and WP report that the Supreme Court, in refusing to hear an emergency appeal, effectively certified the Texas GOP's new redistricting plan for November's congressional elections. (The court may entertain a voting-rights appeal later.) The Republicans will likely gain six to seven seats. (The LAT runs a wire story.)
The IRS will conduct an unprecedented audit of the Nature Conservancy, the nation's largest environmental organization and eighth-largest charity, the Post's front page reports. The "live-in" audit, in which IRS staffers camp out at the organization's locale, is frequent among the Fortune 500 but rare among non-profits. At issue is financial chicanery, first revealed by the Post, involving illegal interest-free loans and tax sheltering for donors.
The Post examines the National Hockey League's financial train wreck. Starting 13 years ago the league, then 21 teams, expanded geographically—with nine new franchises, many in the Sun Belt—in order to win a lucrative national TV contract. The resulting broadcast deal pays only $4 million per team annually (compared to the NFL's $80 million per), and ratings are poor. Meanwhile, the expansion diluted talent, reduced goals-per-game, and left a larger percentage of the league out of the lucrative playoff season. Profits declined—two thirds of teams are losing money—while player salaries skyrocketed. The only solution is to bind salaries to league revenue. (The NBA caps salaries at 57 percent of revenue; NHL salaries consume 76 percent.) But doing this will force a lockout for most, if not all, of next season, which could bankrupt a quarter of the league.
The NYT notes, inside, that former Gov. Howard Dean now has more congressional endorsements (35 representatives, 3 senators), than Capitol Hill lion Richard Gephardt (34 representatives). Fifty-eight congressmen supported Gephardt during his 1988 presidential bid.
The Drudge Report says that John Kerry, now currying favor with Iowa farmers, called for the abolition of the Agriculture Department in 1996. United Press International picks this up.