Nominees to Federal Bench May Be Political Hostages

Article excerpt

With a Republican-controlled Congress and a presidentialelection year only a few months away, the Senate may not confirm as many of President Clinton's nominees to the federal bench as it has during the past two years.

In 1992, then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat, left 55 of President Bush's nominees to the federal bench swinging in the wind without a hearing, effectively blocking their appointments until such time as a Democratic president could choose his own candidates for the lifetime posts. Depending upon Clinton's reelection prospects, Republican senators could force the current chairman, Orrin Hatch of Utah, to adopt the same tactic. "Those 55 names burn in the minds of Republicans," says a GOP staffer.

Without pressure from senior senators, however, Hatch probably will continue his once-a-month schedule of confirmation hearings, says Thomas Jipping, director of the Judicial Selection Monitoring Project at the conservative Free Congress Foundation in Washington. "His general disposition is one of cooperation, and only in extreme cases will there be opposition," Jipping predicts. "I would hope that the Republican leadership -- who has been very cooperative in the majority and in the minority -- would resist the purely partisan call to ram judges through."

That worries Deborah Lewis, legislative counsel for the Alliance for Justice, a liberal public-interest group. She says the president has made great strides in filling the many vacancies he inherited two years ago. But she is concerned that the Republican-controlled Congress could dim prospects for Clinton's upcoming judicial nominees in an election year. "I think that Clinton is appointing well-qualified, diverse and strong judges," Lewis says. "Our concern for the future is that the Senate will slow down the pace of confirmations."

Currently, 21 of Clinton's nominees are pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Before leaving for August recess, 11 nominees approved by the Judiciary Committee were confirmed on the Senate floor by a unanimous-consent vote.

Clinton is expected to nominate Merrick Garland, chief aide to U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, to the important U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Earlier this year, the president floated the name of Peter Edelman, a Department of Health and Human Services attorney and husband of Hillary Rodham Clinton's close friend Marian Wright Edelman, as a possible appealscourt nominee. …