The Right Judges?

By Corn, David | The Nation, February 20, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Right Judges?


Corn, David, The Nation


As President Clinton initiated his delicate dance with Congressional Republicans, he quietly indicated to G.O.P.ers that he would not challenge them on a major front: judicial nominations. The signal came when the administration hoisted the white flag on two federal court appointments. Both were Californians recommended by Senator Barbara Boxer. Both were yanked after Boxer spoke to Senator Orrin Hatch, new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Hatch said the pair--Judith McConnell and Samuel Paz--were goners as far as Republicans were concerned. The White House asked Boxer to propose replacements. The bottom line: Hatch has a veto on federal bench appointments. Generally, Presidents get their way on district and circuit court nominees. But Hatch merely has to threaten a skirmish to force Clinton to turn tail.

In an all-too-familiar scenario, the White House did not exert itself for nominees deemed liberal. Paz was once president of the A.C.L.U. of Southern California. His real offense in G.O.P. eyes is representing victims of police brutality. In fact, he procured the largest jury award ever for such a case. (His client, mistaken for someone else by a police officer, was shot and paralyzed from the waist down and eventually accepted a $5.5 million settlement. Several police organizations and The Washington Times howled against Paz's nomination. He would have been one of the first Mexican-Americans to serve on the federal bench in California. Now he's toast. Partly responsible is Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, a member of the Judiciary Committee. She might have moved Paz's nomination last year--while the Senate was still Democratic--but chose not to, fearful that Michael Huffington would exploit Paz in one more negative ad against her.

The case of McConnell, a superior court judge in San Diego, is more disheartening. Several years ago, she awarded custody of 16-year-old Brian Batey to the male partner of his deceased father instead of the boy's mother, a Pentecostal Christian. Beverly LaHaye, the president of Concerned Women for America, accused McConnell of practicing "religious bigotry" and being biased against "a natural parent." The Washington Times assailed the judge for preferring a "homosexual lover" to a " fundamentalist Christian." But earlier in the custody dispute, when Brian's father was alive, Betty Batey (the "natural parent" kidnapped the boy and had to be tracked down by the F.B.I. in a hunt that took nearly two years. During the 1987 custody hearings, the child requested that he be placed with his father's lover instead of Mom the Kidnapper.

McConnell's nomination was supported by Peter Nunez, a Reagan-appointed U.S. Attorney in San Diego, and Malcolm Lucas, the conservative Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. She was named Trial Judge of the Year by San Diego lawyers in 1991. Yet the Administration and Boxer permitted Hatch and the right to blackball her--without a hearing in which she could have defended her ruling. …

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