Senator responds to Rehnquist's criticism Hatch says courts are partly to blame for heavy caseloads

January 02, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Responding to the unusually pointed complaint of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist about the

Senate's slow pace in confirming federal judges, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee defended the Senate's performance and said the courts were partly to blame for their heavy caseloads.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, said yesterday that while he respected the chief justice's opinion, he disagreed with Rehnquist's assertion that the courts were overburdened because of a large number of judicial vacancies.

Hatch's comments put two of the nation's leading conservative voices on opposite sides of a vigorous debate over the Senate's handling of judicial appointments.

On one side are Hatch and his fellow congressional Republicans, who have delayed consideration of many of President Clinton's nominees, asserting that the White House is trying to pack the courts with "activists," or judges who would interpret laws more broadly than Congress intended. The White House has contended that its nominees are highly qualified and within the mainstream of legal thought and should have their qualifications debated openly.

While Rehnquist had some criticism for the administration -- saying that the president had sometimes been too slow in making the nominations -- he said the Senate bore greater blame for failing to act in a timely fashion on the nominations it did have.

"The Senate is surely under no obligation to confirm any particular nominee," the chief justice said in his annual state of the judiciary report delivered Wednesday. "But after the necessary time for inquiry, it should vote him up or down," allowing someone else to be nominated. He complained that delays in the Senate had left nearly one in 10 of the nation's more than 800 judgeships vacant. "Vacancies cannot remain at such high levels indefinitely without eroding the quality of justice," he said.

The White House quickly seized on the report Wednesday night, saying, "the judicial system is more important than playing politics."

Room for improvement

Hatch, in a telephone interview yesterday, acknowledged that there may be some room for improvement on the part of the Senate, which is responsible for evaluating and confirming judicial nominees. But he said any problems on the courts were )) due largely to what he described as excessive "activism" of many judges and the caliber of Clinton's nominees.

"There are many parties who have a role in these problems," he said. "The No. 1 problem happens to be activist judges who continue to find laws that aren't there and expand the law beyond the intent of Congress," he said. In spite of that development, he said he believes there are enough judges to handle the nation's caseload. "There is little or no room to complain," he said.

Hatch is, in fact, widely viewed as more moderate than many of his Republican colleagues in the Senate who have been involved in a vigorous effort to reduce Clinton's influence in shaping the federal judiciary. Those senators have blocked votes on some of Clinton's nominees.

Battle over judgeships

The battle over judgeships -- part of a broader war over Clinton's nominees -- has become increasingly polarized since Republicans took control of Congress. It has particularly high stakes since a president's judicial nominees rule on some of the nation's most contentious social issues, such as abortion and racial preferences, long after a president leaves office.

The campaign has gone on despite the fact that Clinton has shied away from naming any renowned liberals to the bench and his nominees are generally considered to be moderates.

Hatch also said the Republican-controlled Senate had performed well in 1997, considering 47 nominees, 36 of whom were confirmed. He said that Clinton was largely to blame for most of the vacancies because he had been slow to name candidates.

In fact, Clinton had left some judgeships unfilled for as long as three and four years before ever naming a nominee. Recently, Clinton has picked up the pace; after sending several nominees to the Senate this fall, the administration mounted a campaign against the Senate Republicans, accusing them of obstructing the president's authority to name federal judges.

Hatch said he believed many nominees should be voted up or down on the Senate floor as the chief justice demanded. But he said Clinton should simply withdraw nominees who are opposed by someone in the Senate before a floor vote to avoid the spectacle of a filibuster against a nominee.

Clinton administration officials have complained that nominees do not get a fair chance to have their credentials openly debated. The Senate has scheduled a vote in March for one of those nominees, Margaret Morrow, and it promises to be a rich debate.

Morrow has been nominated by the president for a U.S. District judgeship in California. Sen. John Ashcroft, a Missouri Republican, who has led the fight against many of Clinton's nominees, has said Morrow, a Los Angeles business lawyer and former state bar association president, is the kind of activist he would like to block from becoming a judge.

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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