Hatch Mulls Probing Assigning Judges' Cases: Presidential Pals Put on Clinton Picks' Dockets

Article excerpt

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering whether to pursue an investigation into the propriety of decisions by the chief judge of the U.S. District Court to send - against tradition - criminal cases against friends of President Clinton to judges the president appointed.

Committee sources said yesterday that Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, had not decided if a hearing was necessary, although he was "concerned" about media reports that criminal cases against presidential friends Webster L. Hubbell and Charles Yah Lin Trie had been selectively assigned.

Mr. Hatch, who was traveling in Iowa, noted there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Chief Judge Norma Holloway Johnson in assigning the cases but has said he was concerned that any impropriety would "undermine our political process."

The controversy took a turn yesterday when Judicial Watch, a conservative public interest law firm, asked Judge Johnson to publicly address the issue so "public confidence in the fine reputation of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia can be preserved and strengthened."

In a two-page letter, Thomas Fitton, president of the Washington-based firm, questioned why random appointments were not made for what he described as "certain politically charged criminal cases" involving the Clinton administration.

"With deep respect for you, and with an appreciation for your fine reputation for integrity and honesty, we respectfully request, on behalf of the public, that you quickly address, in the public domain, the allegations," Mr. Fitton wrote.

Judge Johnson has not been available for comment on the matter. She bypassed a traditional random assignment system to send criminal cases against Trie and Hubbell to U.S. District Judges Paul L. Friedman and James Robertson, both appointed by Mr. Clinton. The Associated Press first reported the issue on Sunday.

Judge Johnson summoned her colleagues to an unusual meeting yesterday to discuss a letter she plans to write in response to the AP report, the wire service reported last night.

One judge at the meeting said the draft letter did not explain the assignments.

"She responded with a general statement containing several factors, including what she viewed as the heavy calendars of several other judges at the time of the Hubbell and Trie cases," one judge said.

The court traditionally has relied on a random computer-assignment process for high-profile cases. …