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THE JUDICIARY : Clinton's Big Bench: Judges of All Stripes and Colors Appointed : Blacks, Latinos, women, even Republicans fill federal vacancies. It is the most diverse group named by any President.


WASHINGTON — They are a Baltimore prosecutor whose husband was appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Reagan, a renowned civil rights lawyer here who is legally blind, a veteran prosecutor who became the highest ranking African American in the Los Angeles district attorney's office, a Latino activist in Chicago who worked as a U.S. attorney and a Vermont Republican who was first chosen for the bench by George Bush.

The five are among 129 new judges that President Clinton has appointed to the federal courts during his first two years. The Clinton judges make up the most diverse group of presidential appointments ever. Women and minorities account for 58% of the total. African Americans are nearly one-fourth. Nine percent are Latino.

But the range of backgrounds does not stop there. A few are Republicans. One is outspoken against abortion. Most have practical experience as prosecutors, state judges or corporate attorneys--or in some instances, all of the above.

And best of all, say academic experts who track the judiciary, the Clinton Administration has not sacrificed quality for diversity.

"These are highly qualified appointees, better on average than those of Reagan, Bush or (Jimmy) Carter," said Sheldon Goldman, a University of Massachusetts political scientist who monitors selection of judges.

He cites as evidence the American Bar Assn.'s evaluation of judicial nominees. A committee of ABA lawyers investigates all court nominees, analyzes the breadth of their legal experience and interviews dozens of people who know the candidate. At the end, each nominee is rated well-qualified, qualified or not-qualified.

In the latest tally, 65% of Clinton's appointees have earned a well-qualified rating, compared with 59% for Bush, 55% for Reagan and 56% for Carter.

Last year, the Clinton team got bad marks even from liberal groups for its slow pace in filling the record number of vacancies in the three-tiered federal court system. Only a Supreme Court vacancy got the President's quick attention.

But in its second year, the Administration picked up speed and is now winning rave reviews from the Alliance of Justice, a coalition of liberal groups that monitors the judiciary. Last month, director Nan Aron praised Clinton "for fulfilling his campaign promise to appoint only men and women of unquestioned intellect, judicial temperament, broad experience and a demonstrated concern for the individual rights protected by our Constitution."

Not surprisingly, her conservative counterpart, Tom Jipping at the Free Congress Foundation, is not so enamored of the new judges.

"I think there are many liberal judicial activists in that group, and they have been rubber-stamped by the Senate," Jipping said.

So far, however, only two Clinton court nominees have been tagged as liberal ideologues and challenged by Senate Republicans: Rosemary Barkett of Florida and H. Lee Sarokin of New Jersey. Both eventually won confirmation.

While Clinton has succeeded now in filling most of the judicial vacancies, he has by no means reshaped the federal judiciary. His appointees fill only 15% of the 837 federal judgeships, and many of them replaced retiring Democrats from the Carter era. Republican appointees still hold a majority in all 12 federal circuit courts of appeal.

In the huge U.S. 9th Circuit Court, which covers California and eight other Western states, Clinton has added only one judge among 26: Michael Hawkins of Arizona, a former U.S. attorney.

But if the Clinton nominees have not reshaped the law, they have surely begun to change the appearance of the judiciary.

"At our new judges conference (in Denver), it was wonderful to look around the room and see a group that looked so like the country," said U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins of Los Angeles.

For 16 years, she worked in the district attorney's office in Los Angeles in jobs that ranged from conducting preliminary hearings and prosecuting consumer fraud cases to serving as a top administrator in the downtown office.

In May, she took her seat as a U.S. district judge, the fourth African American to hold a federal judgeship in Los Angeles. She was joined by Judge Richard Paez, a former municipal judge and the first Mexican American to serve on the federal district court in Los Angeles.

In Chicago, Ruben Castillo has been an assistant U.S. attorney, a litigator for a prominent law firm and the regional director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Now, at age 40, he is the first Latino on the federal bench in Illinois. But he credits his appointment to his broad legal experience, not just his family heritage.

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