Panel to Probe Judicial Choices

Article excerpt

A five-judge federal court panel has begun an investigation to determine why the chief federal judge in the District of Columbia assigned criminal cases involving friends and associates of President Clinton to judges appointed by the president.

The panel, acting on a complaint of judicial misconduct, is headed by Appeals Court Judge Stephen F. Williams. It includes Appeals Court Judges Judith W. Rogers and A. Raymond Randolph, and U.S. District Judges Thomas Hogan and Thomas Penfield Jackson.

Last month, the Judicial Council of the D.C. Circuit, in a terse two-paragraph ruling, ordered Judge Williams to determine why a random computer-assignment system at the court was bypassed in four campaign fund-raising prosecutions and a tax-evasion case against Clinton pal Webster L. Hubbell.

Chief District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson abandoned the computer system to send the cases to judges appointed by Mr. Clinton.

She has declined public comment on the decision but told The Washington Times in a letter she was authorized to assign "protracted or complex criminal cases to consenting judges when circumstances warrant," although she did not elaborate.

The new investigation was requested by Rep. Howard Coble, North Carolina Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees the courts, and Judicial Watch, a conservative public-interest law firm.

Mr. Coble asked the Judicial Council in January to investigate the case assignments, saying there were questions about the propriety of Judge Johnson's decision to bypass random assignments.

Mr. Coble, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts and intellectual property, told the Judicial Council the decision "may have been prejudicial to the effective and impartial administration" of court business.

He charged that Judge Johnson had bypassed the random case-assignment process in cases that were "potentially embarrassing" to the president, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Party.

"Did Chief Judge Johnson abuse her discretion under the rule and should she have allowed the normal random case assignment to occur?" Mr. Coble asked the council.

Judge Williams dismissed a complaint by Judicial Watch, labeling the matter as "frivolous" in a November opinion.

"We hope the special committee conducts a thorough investigation," Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch president, said yesterday. …