ATLANTA — President Clinton on Monday linked upholding civil rights and racial diversity to his plea that Republican congressional leaders act swiftly on his judicial nominations, which have been stalled for months for political reasons.
Speaking to the American Bar Assn., Clinton lambasted GOP leaders who have blocked Senate confirmation of his judicial nominees, creating what he called a "mounting vacancy crisis in the courts."
Clinton said that more than half of his pending appointments are women or racial minorities. But, for this diverse group of jurists to serve, he said, "they must be confirmed. And recent experience shows that this can be an unnecessarily long and grueling process that I believe serves neither the judiciary nor our nation."
Clinton has nominated 61 federal judges this year but only 11 have been confirmed by the Senate. White House staff members said that 50 nominations are stalled in the Senate, including 30 who are women or members of racial minorities.
"Despite the high qualifications of my nominees, there is a mounting vacancy crisis in the courts," Clinton said, adding that his choices for the federal bench have received collectively the highest ABA ratings in 40 years. "We simply cannot allow political considerations to keep our courts vacant."
Clinton avoided criticizing any GOP leaders by name but made it clear that, until the Republicans blocked his nominations, he was on course to eliminate the judicial vacancies. "The progress came to a screeching halt in 1996, a presidential election year, when judges became grist for the mill of partisan politics," Clinton said. "In that year, only 17 judges were confirmed and, for the very first time in 40 years, not a single circuit court judge was confirmed by the Senate."
The delay has been attributed in part to a standoff between the White House and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who refused to move on some nominees until Clinton nominated Ted Stewart, a Hatch friend and chief of staff to Republican Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, to the federal bench. The president nominated Stewart last month.
In a letter to Clinton on Sunday, Hatch said that action on judicial nominations is moving forward "in a balanced and thorough manner" and that more than a dozen judicial nominations have been made in the last two months.
Clinton praised Hatch for pushing some nominees through his committee but criticized the GOP leadership, saying that it has used the confirmation process to gain political leverage.
In his half-hour remarks Monday, Clinton made no mention of his own legal troubles, which resulted in his impeachment by the House and subsequent acquittal earlier this year by the Senate. Those problems have consumed much of his attention during the last year. Some critics contend that Clinton's troubles have been a factor in what they call a less than aggressive campaign on behalf of his judicial nominees.
Responding to Clinton's appeal for help from the ABA to press Senate leaders for action on his nominees, five former association presidents signed a letter to Senate leaders urging them "to act to fill the remaining judicial vacancies by rapidly considering nominees, voting on their nominations in the Committee on the Judiciary and promptly ensuring floor votes in the Senate."
The letter was addressed to four U.S. senators including Hatch, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking minority member on the Judiciary Committee.
The letter, released Monday to coincide with Clinton's speech, also pointed out that minority and female judicial nominees "have been disproportionately affected by the delay."
Speaking in the cradle of the nation's civil rights struggle, Clinton linked the need for confirmation of his nominees to the cause of racial diversity and healing. Pointing to civil rights leaders in his audience, Clinton said he was proud to have appointed more women and minorities to the bench than any previous president.
He noted that this year marks the 50th anniversary of President Truman's appointment of William H. Hastie, the first black named to the nation's courts of appeals, and the 65th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's appointment of Florence Allen as the first woman to an appellate court. Clinton said that he nominated the first African Americans to the bench in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 4th Circuit (Judge James A. Wynn) and in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit (Judge Ann Williams). Neither has been confirmed.
"To have a judiciary that reflects the diversity of America, as well as its commitment to equal justice under law and to professional excellence, is a profoundly important national goal," Clinton said.
Sarah Wilson, who works in the office of the White House counsel, said that Clinton's nominees in California reflect his desire to place minorities on the bench. In particular, she said, the six pending nominees for the 9th Circuit include four minorities from California.