WASHINGTON — President Clinton's nominations for 36 federal judgeships have stalled this year because of a five-month dispute between a key Senate Republican and the White House over a vacant judgeship in Utah.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who chairs the committee that oversees the federal judiciary, is demanding that the president nominate a conservative aide to Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt as a federal judge in Salt Lake City. Clinton has balked, and Hatch has declined to hold confirmation hearings on any other nominees since the beginning of the year.
The tug of war has intensified the politicization of the process of naming federal judges. Historically, senators have exercised veto power over individual nominees for the federal bench. And both parties have struggled to influence judicial selections, especially for the Supreme Court.
But Hatch has gone a step further. Although he denies that he has deliberately stalled the confirmation process to impose his will, and notes that two nominees whose hearings were held in 1998 have been approved, a spokesman confirms that no confirmation hearings on the 36 nominees are scheduled.
The struggle is all the more intense because Hatch's candidate for the federal bench, Ted Stewart, is a self-described Ronald Reagan conservative whose views on the environment are anathema to Clinton and to environmental groups and other liberal groups that are politically important to the administration. Stewart, who has no courtroom experience, gained attention in Utah as a fierce critic of federal environmental protection.
He denounced Clinton's 1996 decision to create a new national park in Utah as a "day of infamy."
"It is difficult to imagine anyone with a record more antithetically opposed to the nation's public lands and wildlife protection policies," said leaders of the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Stewart, 50, is Leavitt's chief of staff. He formerly headed Utah's department of natural resources and ordered sharp cutbacks in staffing. In speeches, he described himself as a "Reagan-type Republican" who saw environmental activists as "the common enemy."
The issue is not whether Stewart would make a good federal judge, however. Rather, it is a struggle for control of the selection process--with a powerful GOP senator pitted against a president weakened by scandal and lame-duck status.
Last year, Hatch used his clout to prevail upon Clinton to name a Republican, Paul Warner, as the U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City. State Democrats and environmental activists, noting that Hatch won Warner's appointment without stalling the confirmation process, fear his stronger message this time will sway what they consider a much more important decision--a lifetime appointment to the federal bench.
As of Friday, White House aides said no decision had been made. "It's on the president's desk," one aide said, and the possibility remains that Hatch's choice might yet be accepted.
Under the Constitution, the president nominates federal judges and the Senate must confirm them.
In practice, senators from the president's own party are closely consulted about who should be nominated to judgeships in their states. If they oppose the president's pick, senators from either party can veto the nomination by blocking a Senate vote.
It is unusual, however, for a senator from the opposite party to insist that the president go along with his choice for a judicial nominee. And veteran staffers in the Senate say they cannot recall the entire confirmation process ever being stalled over a single judgeship.
"The whole process is in shambles," one Democratic staffer said.
A spokeswoman for Hatch acknowledged that no judicial confirmation hearings have been held this year and that none are scheduled.
She noted, however, that the Senate confirmed 65 new judges last year and reduced the vacancy rate on the federal bench to a relatively low 7.8%.
"Sen. Hatch believes Ted Stewart has strong bipartisan support throughout Utah, and he feels he is a fine candidate," Hatch spokeswoman Jeanne Lopatto said. "He also feels the time has long passed for the White House to make a decision."
In January, when the president was facing an impeachment trial in the Senate, Hatch began pressing Clinton to nominate Stewart for the federal bench. Hatch described the aide as "honest, decent and fair," and said he would make an excellent judge.
While the stalemate continues, Hatch's committee has held up action on Clinton's other judicial nominees, including one judge from Los Angeles who has been waiting three years for confirmation to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In January 1996, Clinton nominated U.S. District Judge Richard Paez to move up to the appeals court, but his nomination stalled in the last Congress.
Clinton renominated him again this year. Altogether, the 9th Circuit has seven vacancies among its 28 judgeships.
Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist sharply criticized Senate Republicans on New Year's Day 1998 for long delays in voting on judicial nominees. At the time, more than 100 seats were vacant on the 800-seat federal bench.
Last year, Hatch took credit for moving through most of Clinton's pending nominees, sometimes over the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
This year, however, the delays have resumed. Several months ago, Hatch told reporters he had spoken to Clinton about the Stewart nomination and hoped for good news.
"Given the senator's bipartisan approach, we would think the White House would have gone forward with this decision," Lopatto said.