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Bush presses for judges

( -- The Bush Administration has embarked on an early and aggressive effort to find potential judges for the federal bench, but bitter feelings in the Senate, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, may frustrate his effort.

"We're pushing as hard as we can to identify good candidates to recommend to the president," White House Counsel Al Gonzales said in an interview Friday.

Gonzales said that in recent weeks more than 50 candidates have been interviewed by lawyers from his office and the Justice Department. He insisted that despite the rapid pace, potential nominees and their records are being thoroughly examined.

"Even though we're working very quickly and very hard on this process, quality is not going to be compromised. That will always be the utmost priority," Gonzales said.

Bar Group Loses Role

As they streamline the process, Bush advisers have also moved to drop the role of an American Bar Association panel in screening judicial nominees, according to government officials.

For 50 years, the bar committee has reviewed the qualifications of nominees, but conservatives complain that the ratings have a liberal bias.

ABA President Martha Barnett, who has been invited to meet with Gonzales at the White House on Monday, said she's gotten no indication of a change in the process.

"I cant think of a concievable reason why the White House would turn its back on that type of information," Barnett said Saturday.

Houston lawyer Blake Tartt, who once headed panel that examines nominees, was critical of the Administration's plans.

"I think it's pretty unjustified," said Tartt, who identified himself as a lifelong Republican. "The committee doesn't really have a political or ideological view," he added.

Senate Judiciary Committee members Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have written a letter to Bush objecting to the change.

"What I'm afraid of is that the administration may be substituting ideology for quality. And that would be really bad for the judiciary and bad for the country," Schumer said Saturday.

A White House spokesman declined to confim the change or the reasons for it, but said Gonzales would discuss the matter with ABA officials at a meeting Monday afternoon.

Clinton Nominees in Limbo

The Bush Administration's actions appear to be in marked contrast to those of the Clinton White House, which was slow to name judges. By this time eight years ago, President Clinton had just seated his cabinet. It was August before his first slate of judicial nominees was sent to the Senate.

Bush Administration officials hope to get off to a quicker start, but they acknowledge that some delays are inevitable since FBI background checks can take weeks or even months. Ultimately, President Clinton appointed more than 40 percent of the judges on the federal bench.

But there were long delays in the confirmation process, particularly for appeals court nominees. Some Senate Democrats, bitter about the slow pace of confirmations in recent years, want to see action on some leftover Clinton nominations before new Bush nominations are considered.

Before leaving office in January, Clinton re-nominated nine people for appeals court posts. All nine had been nominated previously, but the Senate took no action.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the judiciary committee, said Friday that the nominees "need action taken on them one way or another."

"I think whether action will be taken on these nine will also influence action on future judgeships produced by the Bush Administration," Feinstein said. She suggested that there be "some scenario worked out whereby for every nomineee the Bush Administration is going to send down, one of these remaining Clinton nominees would have a hearing."

Some conservatives, like Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, reject that approach. "I think the idea that you would continue to consider Clinton appointments to the judiciary is absolutely laughable," Bolick said. "We have a new president now. It's his prerogative to name judges."

If Bush did agree to support one or more of Clinton's nominees, it would not be the first time a president has made a deal to give his backing to a nominee he might otherwise oppose. In 1998, Clinton agreed to nominate self-described conservative Barbara Durham to the ninth circuit appeals court in order to get action on several of his own appointees. Durham later became ill and withdrew from consideration.

Closely Examining Lists

Bolick's group and others have submitted names of possible nominees to the White House but Gonzales said outsiders have not participated in any of the interviews.

"It's entirely the White House staff and represenatives of the Department of Justice," he said. Liberals fear the administration is about to try to push a large batch of hard-right conservatives on to the bench.

"They are single-minded in their focus. ... Clearly they want to cement the Reagan revolution and place on these courts as many conservative ideologues as they possibly can," said Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice, a left-leaning group which monitors judicial appointments.

Aron said the possibility that the evenly-divided Senate could come under Democratic control is another motivation for the White House.

"They fear the Senate might turn Democrat within the next few months," she said.

(c) 2001

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