Clinton Slow To Fill Vacancies in Federal Judiciary With PM-Clinton-Judges-Glance
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Slow to capitalize on a big opportunity to reshape a generally conservative federal judiciary, President Clinton plans to play catch-up this summer by filling a handful of the 125 vacant judgeships.
Clinton, who has promised to reverse the conservative tilt of the federal bench, has made only one appointment to the federal bench: Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The Bush administration left behind 99 vacant seats on the federal bench, and the figure increased by 26 in the first five months of the Clinton presidency. Anxiety is growing among judges looking for help and liberals looking for dramatic change in the judiciary.
″It is disappointing that we are sitting here in the middle of June with not a single judicial nomination having been sent to this committee,″ Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., said at a recent hearing.
White House officials say privately they hope to have at least nine nominations in place before the congressional recess in August, matching President Reagan’s first-year pace. The administration already has begun reviewing several candidates, turning their cases over to the FBI and the American Bar Association for further study.
White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum said Clinton hopes to fill the 125 seats by the middle of next year.
An organization of federal judges says 104 of the 649 district court seats are vacant, as are 19 of the 179 appeals court posts. Two of the nine seats on the Court of International Trade in New York are empty.
The sluggish pace has precedent. President Reagan made only one nomination during his first six months in office. President Bush made four, but the candidates were held over from the Reagan term.
Clinton, unlike Reagan and Bush, had to select a Supreme Court justice early in his term, delaying the search for lower court judges.
The process also was mired by the twice-failed search for an attorney general, which held up key Justice Department appointments. Eleanor Acheson, the department official who will review prospective judicial nominees, is not confirmed.
Another problem is the White House’s traditional reliance on friendly lawmakers to recommend district court judges. Democrats are a bit out of practice in this role.
″Democratic senators have not had the ability to nominate anybody for 12 years and now they’re setting up procedures in their states - such as panels of one form or another - to interview candidates,″ Nussbaum said.
For instance, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is still seeking recommendations from his panel to fill five vacancies on the 13-seat district court in Massachusetts.
That court’s chief judge, Joseph L. Tauro, said the vacancies have created an enormous burden on the legal system. At best, cases are delayed. At worst, judges are rushed into hasty decisions.
″What concerns me is that there may be a tendency to go too fast in order to keep up,″ Tauro said. ″We need to think before we act. To speed things up to not fall behind is a dangerous position.″
″Judges are very frustrated by not having the personnel to do their job,″ said David Sellers, spokesman for the U.S. Judicial Conference, an organization of federal judges.
″About 15 percent of the district court judge positions are vacant - the front-line workers. How many Fortune 500 companies could effectively do their job every day if they had 15 percent of their top-line managers not there?″ Sellers said.
Liberals hoping for sweeping changes also are frustrated.
″There is a danger that much of what is on the president’s agenda could be thwarted by a conservative court system,″ said Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice.
With the Supreme Court reviewing fewer appeals courts’ decisions each year, the lower courts have become more important.
″Unless those critically important courts of appeal vacancies are filled ... this administration’s plans will be frustrated by those appellate courts which are now dominated by Reagan-Bush judges,″ she said.
Although Bush left office with nearly 100 seats vacant, he and Reagan left a major mark on the judiciary. Republicans have majorities on 11 of the nation’s 13 regional courts of appeals.