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Dunn in driver's seat

Les Blumnethal (The News Tribune)/WASHINGTON -- In a terse, three-paragraph letter, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales made it clear last week the Bush administration wasn't interested in listening to Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell when it comes to appointments to the federal bench in Washington state.

Gonzales' letter came amid the backdrop of a power struggle over judicial appointments between the two Democratic senators and Rep. Jennifer Dunn, the senior Republican in the state's congressional delegation who has close ties to the White House.

The issue has significant long-term implications, as the appointments are for life. And the dispute comes at a time when the White House has said it will no longer consider American Bar Association ratings in selecting federal judicial candidates.

With control of the 50-50 Senate up for grabs in the 2002 election, the White House seems in a rush to fill as many of the 94 federal openings as possible, with Gonzales and his staff already interviewing candidates. Critics say the new administration has shown early signs of being extremely ideological when it comes to the appointments.

Bush has said he would not use any litmus tests in making his selections, but he does want judges who are strict constructionists when it comes to the Constitution.

Washington is not the only state with two Democratic senators at a time when the White House is held by a Republican. Such large states as California, New York and Florida are in similar situations.

Dunn caught Murray and Cantwell off guard when she announced in early February she would set up a commission to review candidates for federal judgeships in the state and make recommendations to the White House.

The two senators found that totally unacceptable and said the commission should be bipartisan. They pointed out that former Sen. Slade Gorton was well represented on an earlier commission that made recommendations to the Clinton White House. Murray and Cantwell said they wanted a commission with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

"We will insist that the committee process that has served our state so well in the past be continued for future judicial nominations," the senators wrote Dunn, suggesting they might be prepared to hold up nominations in the Senate if they didn't get equal representation.

Dunn responded that while in 1998 there were an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on a judicial screening panel, a year earlier in 1997 Murray created one that had twice as many Democrats as Republicans even though the GOP controlled the Senate.

Given that Republicans now control both the Senate and the White House, Dunn argued that Republicans should outnumber Democrats on any new screening committee by a 2-to-1 margin.

Dunn said she didn't believe equal representation "reflected the current dynamic."

After weeks of fruitless staff discussions and the exchange of additional letters, Murray and Cantwell decided to go around Dunn and arranged a meeting with Gonzales. Dunn's office said they didn't know about the meeting but weren't particularly surprised.

Murray came away from the meeting in Cantwell's office convinced Gonzales had tentatively agreed to the establishment of a screening commission that had equal representation. The president would have to sign off on it before it became final.

The two senators sent a letter to Gonzales outlining what they thought he had agreed to and issued a press release. They also sent Dunn a letter explaining the agreement.

Dunn's office immediately called the White House to say there must have been a mistake and that the tentative agreement outlined in the senator's letter was unacceptable. Reporters were urged to call the White House before writing any stories about a possible breakthrough.

Dunn's faith in White House support was rewarded. Roughly an hour after the senators issued their press release, White House spokesman Ken Lisaius pulled the rug out from under them. "At this point, no agreement has been reached between the White House and the senators over the process for selecting federal district court judges in Washington state," said Lisaius, who used to be press secretary for Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Spokane). "Any negotiations will involve Dunn."

Gonzales subsequently sent a letter to the two senators, stating that he wanted to clarify that "we have not agreed to any specific process for selecting district court judges in Washington. Congresswoman Dunn will be the president's designee for purposes of coordinating with you in developing and implementing an appropriate process.

"We request that you consult with her about the composition of a judicial selection committee."

Murray said she was stunned by the tone of Gonzales' letter. "It makes me skeptical of any future agreements," she said. "I'm now in a cautious mode."

Murray said she was also taken aback by the harshness of Dunn's initial position way back in February. However, "It's not so different than what has been happening in other states," she said.

Dunn said she's not about to back off her belief that a nine-member screening committee should include six Republicans and three Democrats. "I think 6-3 is about right, maybe a little generous," she said.

Both the senators and Dunn say they believe the process should be bipartisan and they would like to avoid any controversies in picking the state's federal judges.

"I believe that having both parties involved in the judicial screening process will ensure a bipartisan process in which the public will have confidence, while ensuring robust debate among individuals with differing viewpoints," Dunn said. "These characteristics are vital to maintaining the integrity of the federal court system."

Murray and Cantwell said that they wanted to avoid "contentious and prolonged" Senate consideration of Washington state judicial nominees and that even the late Washington Democratic Sens. Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson had been able to work with Republican White Houses in judicial selections.

Other Democrats pointed out that Dunn might be overreaching as the Constitution gives the Senate, not the House, the "advise and consent" role in federal judicial nominations. They also point out Dunn was not elected statewide and represents only one-ninth of the state's voters.

Both sides say they are going to have to eventually meet and work things out.

"I hope we can sit down with Dunn and Gonzales," Murray said.

Dunn said, "I'm sure it can be worked out."

But, so far, neither side has shown a willingness to budge.

(c) 2001 The News Tribune

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