Republicans Begin Clearing Backlog of Nominees

By Neil A. Lewis
The New York Times

October 25, 1997

After being pummeled for weeks by the White House over their pace in approving nominations, Senate Republicans have started moving quickly to confirm a backlog of sub-Cabinet-level officers, ambassadors and judges.

With time running out on this year's legislative calendar, the Republican majority has scheduled floor votes in the next few weeks to consider a wide range of nominees. The majority leader, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, insisted this week that there had been no slowdown and promised a rapid-fire series of votes on Clinton Administration nominees.

''These candidates are just coming on to our calendar now,'' Mr. Lott said, ''and it's my intention to clear them as soon as possible.''

At the same time, the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings to deal with as many as a dozen nominees for judgeships in each of the next few weeks.

But the question of how the Senate has treated Mr. Clinton's nominees to the Federal bench -- how speedily the Senate considers them and which ones get approved -- remains a volatile issue. The White House recently mounted a campaign to demonstrate that the Republicans' reluctance to approve judges had resulted in backlogs in courthouses across the nation, affecting the quality of justice.

''The issue of judicial confirmations has gotten wrapped up in unseemly political haggling,'' said Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser to Mr. Clinton. ''The real consequences of this political gamesmanship is that people are being denied justice.''

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a recent interview that he objected to White House complaints of a slowdown.

Mr. Hatch argued that Mr. Clinton was largely responsible for the situation in which nearly 1 in 10 Federal judgeships has remained unfilled for several months. Indeed, Mr. Clinton has let some judgeships remain without nominees for three or more years.

''I'm pretty experienced on these things, but I've never been able to solve the problem of getting people confirmed who aren't nominated,'' Mr. Hatch said with annoyance.

Underlying the dispute is the inexorable political calendar. President Clinton will soon begin the second year of his final term, entering what is traditionally a time of declining influence, especially in his ability to see his choices fill the Federal bench. At one time it seemed likely that Mr. Clinton would leave office having named a majority of the more than 1,000 Federal judges, but that now seems less certain.

The White House recently sent up dozens of judicial nominations to Mr. Hatch's committee. Despite the fact that Mr. Clinton was slow in the previous four years in making nominations, he and Attorney General Janet Reno began a campaign to portray the Senate as responsible for the backlog.

So far this year, the Senate has confirmed 21 judicial appointments, leaving more than 90 vacancies. Fifty-two nominees are in various stages of consideration in the Senate.

A study by scholars at the University of Georgia published this spring in Judicature Magazine concluded that the Senate had confirmed a higher percentage of Mr. Clinton's judicial nominees than it did the nominees of President George Bush. The study, by Roger E. Hartley and Lisa M. Holmes, also found that the Senate confirmed Mr. Clinton's nominees quicker than it did Mr. Bush's.

Yet Prof. Sheldon Goldman of the University of Massachusetts, a leading analyst of judicial nomination politics, said in an interview that the Republicans were intentionally and improperly trying to slow confirmations to have more vacancies available for the next President -- who might be a Republican -- to fill.

''What they are doing in their court-blocking strategy is unconscionable,'' Professor Goldman said, ''because it eventually compromises the whole judicial system.''

The Republicans, while moving more quickly on some nominees, have delayed action on many nominees who have been tagged by conservative groups as potential ''activist'' judges.

For example, the Senate this week confirmed in short order two Clinton judicial nominees, but they were hardly controversial; one, Dale A. Kimball, was from Mr. Hatch's home state and another, Richard C. Casey of New York, was first nominated by President Bush.

At the same time, the Republicans have not acted on several cases like that of Margaret M. McKeown, from Washington State, who was first nominated to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on March 29, 1996. Ms. McKeown's case is being held up because she signed an American Bar Association resolution affirming a woman's right to have an abortion, Republican staff aides said.

Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the minority leader, said through a spokeswoman that the Republicans were ''waging an ideological campaign that's being conducted not against individual nominees but against the judiciary as a whole.''

Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the Republican whip, has said that judges who issue liberal opinions could face impeachment and that he hoped his remarks intimidated judges to curb such rulings.

The Senate Republicans are being pressed by conservative lobbying groups to hold firm against most of Mr. Clinton's nominees, if not all. This week the Judicial Selection Monitoring Project, a conservative group based in Washington, sent out 15-minute videotapes along with a solicitation letter from Robert H. Bork, the former Federal judge whose nomination to the Supreme Court was rejected in 1987.

The tape and letter are part of an effort to raise $1.4 million to campaign against Mr. Clinton's nominees. The tape, which includes five Republican Senators endorsing the campaign, discusses cases said to be symbolic of Mr. Clinton's choices. The main example cited is that of Judge Stewart Dalzell of Federal District Court in Pennsylvania, who set free an accused killer of a young girl.

But Judge Dalzell was appointed by President Bush. In fact, most legal scholars have argued that Mr. Clinton has been largely moderate in his judicial choices, avoiding well-known liberals.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company