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Court candidate's record on rights scrutinized

The testimony was startling: West Palm Beach police allowed their dogs to viciously attack black males, including a 15-year-old who had been innocently walking through a park. But U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp was hardly sympathetic.

"I think of countries where, if you are guilty of a robbery, they cut off your hand as a vivid reminder that this is forbidden," Ryskamp said during a 1987 civil rights trial on four of the attacks.

"It might not be inappropriate to carry around a few scars to remind you of your wrongdoing in the past, assuming a person has done wrong ...," the judge went on, noting that two of the men attacked were admitted thieves.

Nearly three years later, Ryskamp is the Bush administration's leading contender for a seat on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears federal cases from Florida, Georgia and Alabama. His conservative record, particularly in opposing civil rights cases heard in his court, is drawing concern from judicial watchdog groups.

"I don't think the courts are the province for an individual who has demonstrated a hostility to civil rights," said Nan Aron, executive director of the Alliance for Justice, a Washington-based coalition that reviews federal court nominees.

Aron's group has not taken a position on the pending nomination, but she said she will review a file on Ryskamp's decisions and discuss it with civil rights groups this week. She said she already has heard "reservations of the highest order" about the pending Ryskamp nomination.

Aron plans to study an article in the Miami Review, a feisty legal affairs publication that analyzed Ryskamp's career Friday. The Review reported that in 90 percent of the civil rights cases Ryskamp decided, he ruled in favor of the accused and against those claiming rights violations.

In the case of the West Palm Beach police department, police let the dogs chase and capture suspects in "serious misdemeanors," as opposed to using them strictly to catch more dangerous criminals. One victim's testicles were gouged by a police dog, according to testimony.

A jury found in favor of three males who said they were attacked by the dogs, but Judge Ryskamp reversed the jury's verdict. He indicated at one point that the plaintiffs would not have gotten hurt had they not fled.

"I have every reason to believe that if they are ready to surrender, that the dogs would not have been released on them," Ryskamp is quoted as saying in court transcripts.

The 11th Circuit _ the court where Ryskamp may be headed _ overturned part of the judge's decision and ruled against the city of West Palm Beach.

West Palm Beach lawyer James K. Green, who represented the men attacked by the police dogs, said he opposes the nomination. "Based on my experience in that one case, I have serious reservations about his sensitivity, as a judge, to civil rights cases," Green said Monday.

Green is also the legal director of the Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, but he said the group does not take positions on nominees.

One area cited by both Green and Aron is the process by which Ryskamp has reached the stage where he may be nominated. They noted that he was not among the three candidates recommended to Bush and the Justice Department by an advisory commission to Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla.

However, even before the commission forwarded its three names last year, Ryskamp had contacted the Justice Department to express his interest in the position, according to Thomas Schultz, the chairman of the senator's commission.

Since then, administration officials rejected Mack's recommendations and instead have signaled that they favor Ryskamp. The FBI has been conducting a background check of the judge, a step that is customarily one of the final moves before someone is nominated.

The 57-year-old Ryskamp was appointed to the federal bench in 1986 by then-President Reagan. Before that, he was in private practice in Miami. In 1981, he served as a lay leader of the Presbyterian Church in America, a body that strongly opposes abortion.

As a federal judge, he presided over two well-publicized police trials known as the River Cops corruption case. In a separate 1987 case, Ryskamp ruled against a coalition of Miami's black and Hispanic leaders who had claimed that the area's method of electing county commissioners was discriminatory.

Former law partners have described Ryskamp as religious and conservative.

"He has a total sense of fairness, patience and temperament. He has the perfect blend," lawyer David Goodwin told the Miami Herald earlier this month.

If Bush ends up nominating Ryskamp, he will face confirmation in the Senate, where Democrats are pressing to make civil rights a major issue this year. The lawmakers also have questioned some Bush nominees closely about their abortion views.