Bipartisan Effort Earns Judgeships

Article excerpt

Bipartisan politicking and a little in-house maneuvering went a long way in ensuring that Florida was one of only three states to get new federal district judges this year -- the first time in 10 years that any new federal judgeship positions have been created nationwide.

In an atmosphere where the Republican-controlled Senate has repeatedly delayed approving judgeships whose nominations are made by a Democratic president, Florida's senators joined forces. Sens. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and Connie Mack, a Republican, convinced their colleagues to set aside their differences to help resolve a growing backlog of court cases.

That lobbying effort was joined by others, including Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., who helped get the funding for the judgeships when the senators' effort nearly died, and Chief Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, whose Middle District eventually got the four new judgeships.

The 35-county Middle District stretches from Nassau to Collier counties and routinely has among the top caseloads in the country. The caseload has increased 30 percent since 1994.

The work paid off when the positions were funded and the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has held up judicial nominations for years, approved the nominees from Florida this summer. Three of four judges have taken the bench in Fort Myers, Tampa and Orlando; the fourth position, in Jacksonville, has yet to be filled.

Among the most heavily lobbied were Sens. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of a Senate subcommittee that deals with the federal judiciary.

"Connie and I sat down and agreed that we would fill those on a bipartisan basis to ensure that the nominations had the best chance of getting confirmed," Graham said. "We worked hard to impress upon Sen. Hatch, Sen. Grassley and other key people on the Senate Judiciary Committee that the situation in the Middle District was desperate."

Graham said no deals were cut because the party affiliations of those considered for the Middle District were not requested and were not included in the applications. According to Supervisor of Elections officials, all three new judges are Democrats.

The bipartisan efforts were key in getting the judgeships because nominations in other states are most often made only from the senator or senior representative whose party controls the White House, said Ben Hill, chairman of the Federal Judicial Nominating Commission of Florida. The commission screens judicial applicants and makes recommendations to Graham.

"The selection of a person to serve as a judge can be a very partisan activity," Hill said. "Arguably the Republicans didn't want to give the president a chance to select new judges. This year we did a lot of lobbying. We had a tremendous caseload problem in the Middle District and a huge imbalance. We made a tremendous case. Bob Graham and Connie Mack worked together to make it happen."

DIVIDED GOVERNMENT

In times of divided government -- when the presidency is in the hands of one party and the Congress is controlled by another -- congressional leaders are loathe to create new seats in the federal judiciary, said Edward Schwartz, a professor at Harvard University. After all, it is the president who will nominate the candidates, and members of Congress recognize that a federal judgeship is the crown jewels of plum appointed positions. Life tenure is granted to all but magistrates.

Playing such political games helps undermine the overburdened federal judiciary, said Elizabeth Dahl, deputy director of the Constitution Project, a Washington-based non-profit organization that studies legal and constitutional issues.

"Filling slots in the federal judiciary is increasingly seen as a political maneuver that benefits one party or the other," Dahl said. …