Changing the face of the federal bench

October 13, 1994|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is remaking the face of the federal bench.

During Mr. Clinton's first two years in office, 58 percent of his nominations for federal judgeships have been women and minorities, a much higher proportion than any previous president.

Of President Bush's federal judicial nominations, 13 percent were women and minorities. Under President Reagan, it was 8 percent, and 27 percent under President Carter.

"The president has made it clear he wants the courts to reflect America," said White House Counsel Abner Mikva. "Nobody is going to be picked because they are a woman or because they are black or because they are Hispanic but the president wants the court to reflect the pluralism of America."

Among Mr. Clinton's federal judicial nominations in the past two years, 63 percent have been rated "well qualified" by the American Bar Association. That compares to 52 percent under Mr. Bush, 53 percent under Mr. Reagan and 57 percent under Mr. Carter.

Change has come slowly to the federal judiciary. Of the 837 federal judges across the country, about 5 percent were black and about 13 percent were women before Mr. Clinton took office.

Among Mr. Clinton's 143 federal nominees, 30 percent have been women, 21 percent have been black and 8 percent have been Hispanic.

"The record is a spectacular one," said Sheldon Goldman, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "It is the first time in history that we have had an administration that has named over a majority of women and minorities."

HTC Mr. Goldman, who has studied federal judicial selection for 30 years, said the increase is important because women and minorities historically have been excluded from careers on the federal bench.

"It is important that people achieve occupational mobility and not be denied mobility because of their gender and race," Mr. Goldman said. "It is also important to have a judiciary that represents society. How could minorities or women feel that justice is being done going before white male judges? Just as we expect a jury to be a cross-section of the community, this too is extremely important for a sense of fairness."

Mr. Clinton faced a record number of judicial vacancies when he became president -- 13.5 percent or 113 judgeships, White House officials said. The high vacancy rate was due partly to a rift between Republican Mr. Bush and the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.

Still, the disorganized Clinton White House was unable to make much progress toward filling the vacancies during its first year. Only 28 judges were confirmed then.

"President Clinton faced a huge task, an immensely important task, of filling the number of federal judicial vacancies that had been left by the Bush administration," said Mr. Mikva, the former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. "Even though the president announced it would be an important priority, that first year of the administration, I wasn't overwhelmed with the results." Mr. Mikva attributed the slowness to "the administration's problems" and delays within the Senate committee. But now, White House officials are announcing that 101 judges have been confirmed this year -- the largest number in the last 15 years.

White House officials said that Mr. Clinton "played an enormously active, aggressive role" in selecting the judges. In some instances, he had his own ideas about possible nominees. In other cases, a White House screening committee would present a list of a half dozen names to Mr. Clinton.

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