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Rehnquist Urges Action on Judicial Picks

Courts: The chief justice said Senate Democrats should schedule votes soon on nominees for federal vacancies.


WASHINGTON — Four years ago, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist chided the Senate Republicans for stalling on President Clinton's nominees to the 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," the chief justice said then in his year-end report on the federal judiciary.

Rehnquist repeated the admonition in a report issued today, but this time it was directed at Senate Democrats.

"When I spoke to this issue [as 1997 ended], there were 82 judicial vacancies," Rehnquist said. "When the Senate adjourned on [this] Dec. 20, there were 94 vacancies."

The three-tiered federal court system is supposed to have 862 judges.

President Bush nominated 80 judges during his first year in office, but only 28 won Senate confirmation.

"The Senate ought to act with reasonable promptness and to vote each nominee up or down," Rehnquist said.

Five years ago, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, then the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, applauded Rehnquist's message and said he hoped it "will help shame" the Republicans into "clearing the backlog early next year."

Now chairman of the committee, Leahy issued a more equivocal statement pledging to "seek consensus and to move forward to fill remaining vacancies."

Like Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), his predecessor as chairman, Leahy has brought up before the committee only those proposed judges who have support from key senators from both parties.

Quick action was possible in these cases, Leahy said, "because the Senate believed these nominees for lifetime appointments would put justice and the law ahead of rigid ideology."

So far, the Democrats have refused to schedule hearings on several of Bush's most prominent nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals. They include Washington attorney John G. Roberts, a former clerk to Rehnquist, and attorney Miguel Estrada, who once clerked at the Supreme Court for Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

University of Utah law professor Michael McConnell and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carolyn Kuhl, all of whom were nominated in the first half of last year, also have no hearing scheduled.

Nonetheless, Leahy pointed out that his committee had approved more judges in his six months of Democratic control than were approved during the first year of the presidencies of Clinton and the senior George Bush.

The chief justice mentioned no names in his report, but urged the Senate to schedule "up or down votes" on all the nominees within a reasonable period.

Besides confirming more judges to fill vacancies, Rehnquist also asked Congress to authorize more judges in California.

The U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals, which reviews federal cases from the Western states, has seen its cases rise by 95% since the mid-1980s, he said. The circuit needs five additional judges, he said.

The trial courts in San Diego are swamped by drug and immigration cases, Rehnquist said.

"The judges there have the highest number of filings per judge of any federal district court in the nation," he said, and called upon Congress to authorize eight more judges for California's southernmost district.

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