Judges and Party Politics

August 24, 1992

The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland is, like many federal trial courts, under-judged. The authorized strength is 10 judges, but there are three vacancies. If it were not for semi-retired senior judges available to pitch in, the court would be unable to do its job.

Nominations have been sent to the Senate by the president and Justice Department to fill two of the three vacancies, but they may not be approved this year. This has nothing to do with the qualifications of the nominees. William Quarles, a lawyer in private practice in Washington, and Katherine Jacobs Armentrout, a federal prosecutor here, are well respected, even by the Democrats who control the Judiciary Committee, but they are among some 50 Republicans awaiting Senate action and this is a presidential election year.

Federal judgeships are, in addition to everything else, patronage plums. The possibility of a Democratic president next January is reason enough for some Democratic senators to decide to wait till 1993 to act on most of those Bush administration nominations to the federal courts now pending. Reports from Washington are that only a very few more -- maybe 10 -- will be lucky enough to be confirmed before adjournment. (Maryland's two nominees might well be among those: He's black, she's a woman, and Democrats have said they want to see more of both in the federal judiciary. Also, the judgeships they have been nominated for have been vacant for about a year.)

In the best of all worlds, judicial vacancies would not be left unfilled because of politics. But Democrats are behaving as partisans always have. Just over half the president's court nominees this year were approved. This is about the usual ratio in a presidential election year in which the president is a member of one party, and the other party has a majority in the Senate.

If the president is re-elected, no doubt the Senate will quickly approve any Republican nominees left over from 1992. How these will fare if Bill Clinton is elected is another story. Their nominations all could, of course, go forward, but given the fact that 60 percent of the present federal judiciary has been appointed by the very partisan and ideology-driven Reagan-Bush administrations, don't bet on it. The Democrats have been out in the cold for over a decade. A lot of Democratic lawyers have been waiting a long time to bid for federal judgeships.

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