Rehnquist Asks Limit on Federal Purview

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U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist asked Congress yesterday to reduce a key area of federal court jurisdiction in his most drastic proposal yet to help fewer judges cope with more work.

He painted a dismal picture of a court system laboring under a punishing workload and a growing variety of cases that will erode the "special competence that now sets it apart from many state systems."

The chief justice suggested Congress reduce the overload by cutting the number of so-called diversity civil suits under state law, heard by federal judges simply because the plaintiff and defendant are from different states.

The chief justice also said President Clinton and the Senate share responsibility for not filling 82 vacant judgeships - almost 10 percent of the federal judiciary. And it has been been seven years since Congress created new judgeships.

"The president should nominate candidates with reasonable promptness, and the Senate should act within a reasonable time to confirm or reject them," the chief justice said in a year-end assessment of the judicial branch, which he heads.

"The Senate is surely under no obligation to confirm any particular nominee, but after the necessary time for inquiry it should vote him up or vote him down," he said.

No one was available for comment yesterday at the Senate Judiciary Committee. White House spokesman Michael McCurry said "we agree" and argued that the president's ability to work with Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, was complicated by pressures put on him by his Republican colleagues in 1997.

"We believe that our promptness is only affected by our need to be unbearably thorough, given the partisan climate in which some nominations have been considered," Mr. McCurry said yesterday. "In 1997, this has been a not good working environment . . . as many nominees fell victim to the political agendas that exist on the Hill," he said.

About 55,000 to 60,000 "diversity of citizenship" cases are filed each year. …