In an unusual preemptive strike, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has recommended to President Clinton that he nominate politically influential corporate lawyer Kim Wardlaw for a federal trial judgeship the next time there is a vacancy in Los Angeles, The Times has learned.
Normally, such recommendations are not made until there is an open seat and that is not expected to occur for several months.
The move comes after a high-powered campaign in which nearly a hundred prominent Wardlaw backers from the worlds of law and politics deluged the offices of Feinstein and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer with letters of support. Sources in both offices said they received more letters of recommendation for Wardlaw than any other candidate.
Wardlaw has strong ties to Feinstein and to the Clinton White House. She helped raise money for the senator's 1992 campaign, and was a Clinton delegate to the 1992 Democratic convention. She also was responsible for organizing Hillary Clinton's schedule during campaign trips to California and served on the Clinton Administration's Justice Department transition team. Her husband, Bill Wardlaw, was co-chairman of Clinton's California campaign and is Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's closest adviser.
The 40-year-old business litigation specialist has been pursuing a federal judgeship since early 1993, but her initial attempts were unsuccessful.
She did not make it past the first round with Boxer's screening committee in 1993. Although she was one of 15 candidates who sources said were well ranked by Feinstein's screening committee the same year, Feinstein recommended Audrey Collins, the highest ranking African American woman in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, and Robert Timlin, a state appeals court judge from San Bernardino.
But Wardlaw did not abandon her quest. During and after the elections last fall, some of her backers, particularly her husband, renewed the push with Feinstein and White House officials and in late April Feinstein sent the recommendation to Clinton.
"She is a nominee with very strong credentials and very strong support," said Feinstein's state director Bill Chandler, referring to Wardlaw's political backing and her resume, which includes graduation with honors from UCLA Law School in 1979, clerkship for a federal judge and partnership at O'Melveny & Myers.
"The President has indicated his support for her nomination. Mayor Riordan has indicated his support," Chandler said.
Several sources noted that Riordan's support and Wardlaw's strong ties to corporate America--she has represented Bausch & Lomb, Blockbuster, Cigna, the E. & J. Gallo Winery, Paramount Pictures and Southern California Edison--would prove useful in helping her survive the potentially treacherous confirmation process in the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee and the Republican majority Senate.
Although the President nominates federal judges, normally he gives considerable deference to a senator's recommendations for district court judgeships. (When they took office, Boxer and Feinstein agreed that they would each make two recommendations for the four vacancies then existing on the Los Angeles district court bench and then rotate picks for subsequent vacancies. Feinstein has the next one.)
Chandler said Feinstein reviewed the list of candidates ranked highly by her committee and recommended Wardlaw earlier than normal because she "wanted to make sure there was no lag time" between the next vacancy and the nomination of a successor.
State Court of Appeal Justice Joan Dempsey Klein, a member of Feinstein's screening committee, would not talk about the committee process. But Klein said she knows Wardlaw personally, considers her "extraordinarily well qualified" and added that there is a good reason for Feinstein to try to speed up the process.
"I would assume Feinstein and Boxer are most eager to fill any vacancies they have some input on," Klein said. "Many of us are concerned about the slow pace at which the federal bench has been occupied with new appointments."
She said that since Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has indicated that he is not going to move nominations rapidly, the White House needs to get as many viable candidates in the pipeline as soon as possible, particularly because it becomes increasingly difficult to get a nominee through the Senate the closer it gets to election time.
Chandler said that it would be premature for the White House to do anything formal until another vacancy materializes, if and when U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima is confirmed by the Senate for a seat on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. White House officials declined comment.
Wardlaw said in an interview that she was "very honored and grateful to the senator for her recommendation and to the President for his consideration. . . . I've had a lifelong desire to serve on the bench."