Senate Democrats, GOP Maneuver on Judicial Appointments

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - President Clinton is trying to fill the remaining vacancies in the federal judiciary before he leaves office, and a combination of tactics by the administration, and Senate Democrats and Republicans indicates that political maneuvering on the issue promises to complicate the process in the final days of the 106th Congress.

While the issue may not grab the attention of most Americans, the importance lies in the fact that federal judges are appointed to the bench for life, giving Clinton greater incentive to leave a lasting legacy by filling as many posts as possible.

But some Republicans and some conservative groups are waging a battle to block Senate confirmation of certain Clinton nominees between now and mid-October, when the Senate is scheduled to adjourn for the year.

A spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) described the situation as typical political wrangling during the waning days of a presidency. But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and ranking minority Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) say it's more than that.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal on September 5, Hatch claimed that Clinton is deliberately nominating minority candidates for judicial posts and flouting a long-standing tradition of first consulting the nominee's home-state sSenators, a charge denied by the White House. Hatch also faulted Clinton for then accusing Senate Republicans of racism if a nomination is opposed.

According to Hatch's office, the matter is further complicated by the fact that there won't be enough time to research a nominee's judicial record and complete necessary FBI background checks.

"It's not a formality," said Jeanne Lopatto, press secretary for the Judiciary Committee. "When the president sends us a nomination, and then we have to begin to compile a complete background information file on each nominee [that includes] an extensive questionnaire on education, employment, work history, case load, journal articles, speeches, and financial disclosure," she said.

With only two or three weeks left on the legislative calendar, Lopatto said, there just isn't enough time remaining to complete that process and have the committee review it all.

But David Carle, a spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the ranking Democrat on the committee, says the delay is due to a decision Republicans made four years ago to hold up Clinton nominees and he accused the GOP of an orchestrated strategy to prevent some nominations to move forward.

"About four years ago, there was a sea change in the Senate in the way judicial nominees are considered," claimed Carle. Before that, said Carle, "when nominees came to a vote in a committee or on the Senate floor, they [would] often pass overwhelmingly, sometimes 95 to 5 or by voice votes. But now it's anonymous holds, anonymous objections to proceeding and holds without any reasons given." Under Senate rules, Senators can anonymously kill a nomination at the committee level or in the full Senate.

"Republicans have been putting up obstacles at each step of the process," said Carle. "The record holder is currently at over three years for a hearing, and it looks like they won't even get a hearing," said Carle. "It's been a constant struggle."

But Republicans say the facts don't support the rhetoric of Senate Democrats. "I don't understand how they can say that when the Senate has confirmed 373 judicial appointments since Clinton has taken office," said Lopatto. "Reagan had 382 confirmed," she said.

Amid the partisan finger pointing over certain nominees are activists who sometimes weigh in on the process. Virginia Armstrong, national chairwoman for the Eagle Forum Court Watch, acknowledges that conservatives often oppose nominees who either lack qualifications or have a history of putting liberal ideology over rule of law.

Armstrong pointed to one particular Clinton nominee for the US Court of Appeals, Bonnie Campbell, who reportedly once called fundamentalist Christians one of the "greatest enemies" of public education and vowed to exclude them from any "discussion on education policy." Campbell has also opposed parental notification for underage girls seeking an abortion.

The Eagle Forum is leading an effort to stop what it calls Clinton's "late term blitz to pack the courts." But, Armstrong said that's no different than liberals who opposed late term Bush nominees.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Daschle (D-SD) is himself holding up four Clinton nominees who have already been approved by the Judiciary Committee in an effort to draw attention to the dozens of other nominations that have not yet made it out of committee.

But the close of a congressional session doesn't necessarily bring the controversy to a close. If Clinton's appointees are not all confirmed by the Senate, Inhofe said he expects the president to make a large number of recess appointments, as he has in the past.

Inhofe charges that Clinton abuses the constitutional provision allowing the President to fill vacancies that "may happen during the recess of the Senate" in order to by-pass the Senate and unilaterally put controversial nominees into office.