Bush seeks faster judicial confirmations

Strict timetable proposal praised, but its timing, near election is criticized


WASHINGTON - Warning of a "vacancy crisis" in the federal courts, President Bush yesterday proposed to streamline the judicial confirmation process by imposing firm deadlines for Senate action.

Under Bush's plan, the Senate would have 90 days to hold a hearing on a judicial nominee and 180 days to accept or reject the president's choice. Because the Constitution awards the Senate power to decide how it will give "advice and consent" on judicial nominees, Bush seeks an informal agreement to his timetable.

Several of Bush's court picks have waited more than a year for a Senate hearing. Although the proposal targets an obvious problem, the timing of Bush's announcement - less than a week before Tuesday's congressional elections - suggests that it is as much about politics as policy.

Bush's complaint that the Senate has done "a lousy job" with his judicial nominees is a standard applause line that he uses at Republican political rallies. He often mentions the Senate's record on judicial nominees as a key reason why voters should support Republican candidates.

Democrats say that the issue isn't scheduling, it's the poor quality of Bush's judicial picks.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, defended the panel's work and accused Bush of playing politics with the issue.

"The Senate does not need arbitrary deadlines. What we need is cooperation from the White House in choosing more noncontroversial nominees," Leahy said in a statement. "Controversial nominations to lifetime appointments, once confirmed, cannot be undone."

Sheldon Goldman, an expert on the judicial nomination process, praised the substance of Bush's proposal but criticized its timing.

"The timing almost guarantees that it's not going to be taken seriously. One week before the election is not the time to do this," said Goldman, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. "It's unfortunate, because there really does need to be reform."

The Senate's ability to stall judicial appointments could become even more important if Bush gets a chance to replace one of the aging Supreme Court justices.

The Senate has confirmed 80 of Bush's 131 judicial nominees. The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected two nominees, Charles W. Pickering of Mississippi and Priscilla Owen of Texas. The rest are awaiting a committee hearing or a vote in the full Senate.

In the meantime, about 9 percent of the federal court seats - 79 out of 849 - are vacant.

"The judicial confirmation process does not work as it should," Bush said in announcing his plan at the White House.

"Nominees are too often mistreated. Votes are delayed. Hearings are denied. And dozens of federal judgeships sit empty."

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