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California and the West

Senate Confirms 3 Federal Judges in Southland


The U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed U.S. Atty. Nora Manella to a federal district judgeship in Los Angeles. The Senate also confirmed Orange County Superior Court Judge David O. Carter and San Diego County Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Whelan to federal judgeships.

The three were approved without opposition, along with 14 judicial nominees from around the country, on the Senate's last day of work before recessing for the year.

Several other nominations died, including the bid by U.S. District Judge Richard Paez to move up to the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals. Paez's nomination had been pending for 33 months and was not brought to the Senate floor after Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a staunch conservative, made it clear that he would mount a filibuster against Paez, who, in 1994, became the first Mexican American to serve as a federal trial judge in Los Angeles.

Sessions considered Paez an "unacceptable" nominee, his spokesman, John Cox, said. Some conservative legal advocates have complained that as a law teacher Paez told his students that he considered Proposition 209--California's anti-affirmative action ballot measure--an "anti-civil rights initiative."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) retorted that "it is indefensible that such a fine person and excellent jurist has been denied the opportunity for consideration and a vote by the full Senate."

President Clinton must now decide whether to renominate Paez and other judicial candidates whose nominations expired with the end of the current congressional session. Three other nominees cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee but remained unconfirmed: William J. Hibler and Ronnie L. White, African American judges serving on state courts in Illinois and Missouri, and Timothy Dyk, a high-powered Washington lawyer.

In all, the Senate approved 65 of Clinton's judicial nominees this year, resulting in a total of 101 confirmations during the 105th Congress. That record was praised by Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), but criticized by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee's ranking Democrat.

Hatch said that the 101 confirmations topped the average of the last five Congresses, which was 96, and that the number of vacancies on the federal bench was now down to 50--a 5.9% vacancy rate. Hatch said this was the lowest vacancy rate since the federal judiciary was expanded in 1990. In addition, the veteran senator said the Clinton administration had failed to nominate anyone for 29 of the 50 vacant judgeships.

"The accusation that the Republican Senate delays consideration of certain nominees is simply a ploy to divert attention away from the fact that qualified, noncontroversial nominees, which constitutes the overwhelming majority of nominees, were confirmed promptly, usually by unanimous consent," Hatch said.

But Leahy said the confirmation process has become increasingly protracted. The length of time for a judicial confirmation increased to an average of 212 days in 1997--the first time in history that the average exceeded 200 days--and rose to 230 days this year, Leahy said. The Senate took 41 months to confirm UC Berkeley law professor William Fletcher to the 9th Circuit and two years or more handling the nominations of four women, he said.

Leahy also criticized the Republican Congress for "refusing to consider the authorization of the additional judges needed by the federal judiciary to deal with their ever increasing workload." Last year, the Judicial Conference of the U.S. asked Congress to authorize an additional 53 federal judgeships.

During Clinton's presidency, the Senate has confirmed 299 of his judicial nominees. That means there is a possibility that he could overtake Ronald Reagan's record of 378 confirmations before the end of his tenure.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who championed the causes of Manella, Carter and Whelan, predicted that all three would serve the country well in their new jobs.

Manella, 47, an honors graduate of Wellesley College and USC Law School, served as a Municipal Court judge and a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles before she became the U.S. attorney four years ago. Earlier in her career, she was an assistant U.S. attorney, a civil litigator and legal counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. This year, the National Law Journal named her one of the 50 most influential female lawyers in the United States.

During her tenure as U.S. attorney, the Los Angeles office, which has responsibility for prosecuting federal crimes in a region with a population of 16 million, grew considerably. The office developed a special unit on health care fraud and stepped up environmental prosecutions.

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