President blames GOP for judicial vacancies Clinton warns of 'crisis' because of the Senate's slow pace on nominations

September 28, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- President Clinton warned of a "vacancy crisis in our courts" yesterday and accused Republicans in Congress of clogging the courts by not acting swiftly on his judicial nominations.

Clinton used his radio address to mount his most outspoken defense of the pace of his appointments and to blame his political opponents for the delays.

"The Senate's failure to act on my nominations, or even to give many of my nominees a hearing, represents the worst of partisan politics," Clinton said. "Under the pretense of preventing so-called judicial activism, they've taken aim at the very independence our founders sought to protect. The congressional leadership has actually threatened sitting judges with impeachment, merely because it disagrees with their judicial opinions."

Clinton, who taught constitutional law at the University of Arkansas before taking office in this state, said the situation posed "a very real threat to our judicial system."

Around the nation, Clinton said, nearly 100 federal judgeships are empty. He said that the Senate confirmed only 17 judges in 1996, which he said represented the lowest election-year total in 40 years.

This year, Clinton said, he has sent 70 judicial nominations to Congress, but fewer than 20 have been acted upon. "The result is a vacancy crisis in our courts that Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist warned could undermine our courts' ability to fairly administer justice," he said.

The president was responding to recent efforts by Republicans to increase the party's influence through the confirmation process. Although the White House nominates candidates for the bench, the Republicans control the Judiciary Committee as well as the Senate floor -- both of which must provide a majority for a judge to be confirmed.

Despite the offensive on judicial vacancies, Clinton has generally taken pains to avoid controversial confirmation battles. He has for the most part stayed clear of notable liberals.

Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott defended his party. "We have a responsibility on behalf of the American people to look very closely at judicial nominees, make sure what their record is," Lott said, "because judicial activism is something we have a real problem with."

Until Clinton's address, he had essentially left it to Janet Reno, the attorney general, and to Democrats in Congress to complain that Republicans have slowed the process of filling vacancies.

But yesterday he suggested that the situation had become intolerable in the past 18 months.

"An unprecedented number of civil cases are stalled," Clinton said, "affecting the lives of tens of thousands of Americans -- from the family seeking life insurance proceeds to the senior citizen trying to collect Social Security benefits to the small business protecting its right to compete."

In criminal courts, he said, "nearly 16,000 cases are caught in limbo, while criminals on bail await punishment and victims await justice."

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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