WASHINGTON — Wading into a simmering dispute between Congress and the White House, Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist on Wednesday chided Senate Republicans for stalling on President Clinton's judicial nominations.
In an annual report on the federal judiciary, the conservative chief justice warned that the delays, which have left one out of every 10 federal judgeships vacant, threaten the quality of justice in federal courts.
"The Senate is surely under no obligation to confirm any particular nominee, but after the necessary time for inquiry, it should vote him up or vote him down," Rehnquist said in his year-end report. "Vacancies cannot remain at such high levels indefinitely without eroding the quality of justice."
The vacancy problem is "particularly troubling" on the West Coast, Rehnquist noted. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is supposed to have 28 judges, has only 18 to hear appeals from a nine-state region that includes California.
Since taking control of the Senate in 1995, the Republicans have adopted a go-slow strategy on court nominees. They have not voted down a single Clinton nominee, but they have delayed action on dozens.
Rehnquist noted that 101 judges were confirmed in 1994, but only 17 won Senate approval in 1996, followed by 36 in 1997.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who was unavailable for comment Wednesday, has firmly denied the GOP is deliberately stalling, saying he and his colleagues are closely scrutinizing the backgrounds of Clinton's nominees to weed out "liberal activists."
The Republicans also blame the administration for the vacancy problem because of its slow pace in submitting nominations.
The year-end numbers could bolster either argument. Although 86 judgeships are vacant nationwide, the administration has only 42 nominations pending before the Senate.
Rehnquist's comments focused on the dozen Clinton nominees who have been in limbo for more than a year.
Topping the list is UC Berkeley law professor William A. Fletcher, who was nominated for a seat on the 9th Circuit Court in April 1995. His nomination is still pending, but Republican leaders say they plan no further action to either confirm or reject Fletcher.
Similarly, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Paez in Los Angeles was nominated for the 9th Circuit in January 1996, but the appointment has not come up for a vote. So too with Seattle lawyer Margaret M. McKeown, who was nominated to the 9th Circuit in March 1996.
The nomination of Los Angeles lawyer Margaret M. Morrow to be a district judge has been pending since May 1996. Under a deal worked out by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Morrow's nomination is to come up for a Senate vote in February.
Administration officials and Senate Democrats cheered Rehnquist's comments.
"I think the chief justice is entirely right. No one has a right to be confirmed, but they [Republicans] have an obligation to act," said Assistant Atty. Gen. Eleanor D. Acheson, who is in charge of selecting judicial nominees. "This process takes a very real and personal toll on people whose lives and careers are put on hold."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, said he hopes Rehnquist's message "will help shame the Senate into clearing the backlog early in the new year."
But the potential impact--if any--of the chief justice's remarks is unclear.
It also is hard to gauge the impact of judicial vacancies on the quality of justice.
In recent years, judges have complained about the increasing workload in the federal judiciary, but that is due mostly to a sharp rise in drug and immigration cases.
Vacancies on the courts "aggravate the problem of too few judges and too much work," Rehnquist said.
As a result, trials in civil cases are often delayed for years. So too are appeals. Last year, Chief Judge Proctor Hug said the 9th Circuit Court had to cancel hearings in 600 cases because judges were not available.
Operating on their own, judges can choose how to cope with the problem of too much work. They can take longer to dispose of cases, or they can get rid of them quickly by writing cursory opinions to resolve complex disputes. On an appeals court, a three-judge panel can choose not to write a thorough opinion and instead announce it is upholding a decision "for the reasons stated by the district court."
The current partisan fight over judges reflects a battle that began in the early 1980s. When President Reagan began naming conservative lawyers to the bench, liberal advocacy groups urged Senate Democrats to closely scrutinize Reagan's nominees and block the most conservative of them. Now the sides are reversed, as conservative activists are pressing Senate Republicans to block Clinton's nominees.
During the 12 years when Reagan and George Bush were in the White House, four judicial nominees were voted down in the Senate.
They were Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork in 1987 and lower court nominees Jefferson B. Sessions of Alabama in 1986, Bernard Siegan of San Diego in 1988 and Kenneth Ryskamp of Miami in 1991. Several others survived, but only after hard battles.
Liberal activists may rue the defeat of Sessions 12 years ago. Alabama voters elected him to the Senate in 1996, and he is one of the key Judiciary Committee Republicans who have blocked Clinton's judicial nominees.