President slowly bringing diversity to federal judiciary

January 11, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is changing the look of the federal judiciary.

During his first year in office, more than half of Mr. Clinton's nominees for federal judgeships were women or members of racial and ethnic minorities, a proportion significantly higher than during any previous administration.

For example, Presidents Reagan and Bush named white men to 82 percent of the available judgeships over their 12 years in office.

In contrast, 39 percent of Mr. Clinton's first 48 nominees were white men. Administration officials predict that pattern will continue throughout Mr. Clinton's term.

"This is the first president who will appoint a majority of his judges who are women or minorities," said Ronald Klain, the associate White House counsel in charge of screening candidates for the federal appeals court and the Supreme Court.

Unlike the elected branches of government, the federal judiciary has been slow to change and remains the province mostly of white men. Among the 837 judges who sit on the federal bench, 5 percent are black and about 10 percent are women.

Among Mr. Clinton's first judicial nominees, 23 percent are black, 35 percent are women and 6 percent are Latinos. No Asian-Americans have been nominated.

Judith W. Rogers, the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Law School and the well-regarded chief judge of the District of Columbia's highest nonfederal court, has been nominated to the influential U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. Ms. Rogers, 54, is only the second black woman chosen for an appeals court seat and the first since 1980, officials said.

Mr. Clinton selected Martha A. Vasquez, 40, as a U.S. district BTC judge in New Mexico. She is the first Mexican-American woman to join the federal judiciary, Justice Department officials said. They also anticipate naming the first Native American judge this year.

Mr. Clinton's sole pick for the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is the second woman to serve there and the first Jewish member of the court since 1969.

This unprecedented push for diversity on the federal bench has won praise from liberal groups that monitor the judiciary.

But a conservative analyst derided Mr. Clinton for "catering to the bean counters."

They are obviously taking the politically correct approach and trying to please the diversity crowd," said Thomas Jipping, a legal analyst with Coalitions for America, a conservative group that also monitors nominations to the judiciary.

Among previous presidents, only Jimmy Carter made a significant effort to increase the percentage of women and minorities on the bench. Even so, 66 percent of his nominees were white men.

Mr. Clinton has won early plaudits for the high caliber of his selections.

"They appear to be extraordinary well qualified," said Sheldon Goldman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who tracks judicial selections. "Their ABA ratings so far have been superior to Bush and Reagan."

He was referring to the evaluations of each nominee done by a committee of the American Bar Association.

"We have not seen a tension between excellence and diversity," said assistant Attorney General Eleanor D. Acheson, who screens candidates for the district courts. Because of the

growing number of women and minorities in the legal profession, "we have a very rich field to pick from," she said.

During the Reagan and Bush years, critics accused executive branch officials of imposing an ideological "litmus test" on potential judges. For example, those who supported abortion rights or affirmative action were vetoed, it was alleged. But Republican officials steadfastly denied the charge and insisted that they sought only talented lawyers who would follow a course of "judicial restraint."

Because of a slow start, Mr. Clinton has yet to put a real dent in Republican dominance of the federal judiciary.

He came to office facing a record number of judicial vacancies, attributable in part to a prolonged dispute between the Bush White House and the Democrat-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee. Angry that the FBI report involving sexual harassment charges against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had been leaked to the news media, Mr. Bush blocked giving the committee further access to FBI reports on its judicial nominees. In response, the committee blocked approval of Mr. Bush's new court nominees during much of 1992.

But Mr. Clinton's aides were unable to fill the vacancies quickly. Key Justice Department posts went unfilled for months last year. Another complication reflects the fact that the selection process begins with recommendations from Democratic senators, some of whom, such as California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, were newcomers.

By year's end, however, Mr. Clinton had nominated slightly more new judges during his first year than had either Mr. Reagan or Mr. Bush.

Nonetheless, a record 118 seats remained vacant as of Jan. 1. Reagan and Bush appointees still hold a majority in 11 of 13 federal appeals courts, according to the Alliance for Justice.

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