ABA loses lead role on judicial nominees

White House to withhold advance opportunity to screen federal choices

March 23, 2001|By Thomas Healy | Thomas Healy,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The White House announced yesterday that it would no longer ask the American Bar Association to screen potential candidates for the federal bench, ending the group's 50-year role as the pre-eminent evaluator of judicial nominees.

In a letter to the ABA, White House Counsel Al Gonzales said that although President Bush would welcome the association's comments, he would not give it an advance opportunity to vet prospective nominees. Gonzales said the decision was motivated out of fairness to other groups interested in the nomination process.

"The question is whether the ABA should play a unique, quasi-official role and thereby have its voice heard before and above all others," Gonzalez wrote, pointing out that the ABA takes public positions on political and legal issues. "We do not think that kind of preferential arrangement is either appropriate or fair."

ABA President Martha W. Barnett said she was "disheartened" by the president's decision. She said the ABA had helped build confidence in the federal judiciary by ensuring that judicial nominees were qualified for the bench.

And she worried that politics would become the standard by which nominees are judged.

"We are concerned about the message this sends to the profession and the public about the role of politics in the nomination of federal judges," Barnett said. "We cannot think of any constructive purpose this serves."

The decision was applauded by conservatives, who have accused the ABA of a liberal bias. "This group cannot be doggedly partisan on issues and expect to be considered nonpartisan on judicial candidate evaluations," said House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin.

But Democratic senators were critical. In a joint statement, New York's Charles E. Schumer and Vermont's Patrick J. Leahy said that "limiting the ABA's role will harm the process of selecting and confirming federal judges and threatens the quality and integrity of the federal bench."

The senators, who serve on the congressional panel that oversees the confirmation of federal judges, said they would continue to seek the ABA's advice on nominees, though they warned that not involving the group from the outset would delay the confirmation process.

Yesterday's decision capped a week of speculation about what role, if any, the ABA would have in the nomination process under the Bush administration. In a meeting with Barnett on Monday, Gonzalez indicated that the White House might dilute the ABA's exclusive role in the process by bringing in another group to screen potential nominees.

Instead, however, the White House decided that it would not seek advice from any outside group before naming a nominee. A spokesman for the president said the White House will conduct its own research of prospective candidates.

The ABA, which has about 400,000 members, was first brought into the nomination process by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Since then, every administration has given the association first shot at evaluating prospective nominees for federal judgeships.

The ABA's evaluation is carried out by a standing committee that officials say takes no part in formulating positions on public policy matters. The committee examines the background of each prospective nominee and interviews lawyers familiar with his or her work.

Although the ABA says the process is nonpartisan, Republican officials have repeatedly accused the group of a bias against conservative nominees. They were particularly stung by the association's mixed reviews of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987, which many viewed as instrumental to his defeat. They also were upset when not one of the committee's 15 members gave Clarence Thomas, now a sitting justice, a "well-qualified" rating.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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