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Jewish World Review March 23, 2001 / 28 Adar, 5761

Bill Straub

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Consumer Reports

Bush wants to leave his mark on the courts -- PRESIDENT Bush is moving swiftly to leave his impression on the federal courts and has convened a group of advisers to review the backgrounds of potential judicial nominees.

Bush has made clear that while only the highly qualified need respond, he's looking for judges with a conservative's view of the law and not the sort of activists who have drawn fire from Republicans.

"He will appoint people who are the best qualified in the country, regardless of their party,'' said press secretary Ari Fleischer. "He wants to appoint people who will strictly interpret the Constitution, not write new laws from the bench. Those will be his criteria as he has enunciated for more than a year.''

Former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, a Republican who led the Justice Department under former President Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush, said the new president is following a GOP tradition of immediately grabbing the reigns of the federal judiciary.

While such appointments were not a top priority for President Bill Clinton, Thornburgh said, "the Reagan and two Bush administrations paid particularly close attention to the process of screening and appointing judges.''

Clinton encountered persistent problems getting his choices through a Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation. The panel regularly bottled up Clinton's nominees, leaving 94 vacancies at the district and circuit levels.

Bush has taken steps to begin the process. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez met with representatives of the American Bar Association to advise them to expect a lesser role in assessing the qualifications of nominees - a move applauded by conservatives who have complained for years about the group's perceived liberal bent.

The administration has officially withdrawn the names of 10 nominations made by Clinton shortly before he left office. The moves were panned by Democrats.

But most of the action is occurring behind the scenes. Gonzalez is heading a 15-member screening committee consisting of White House and Justice Department officials who already have interviewed more than 50 prospects. The process began before Bush assumed office on Jan. 20. The first group of nominees is expected to be sent to the Senate for consideration later this spring.

Democrats say Bush's aggressive judicial initiative hints of an overt attempt to swing the federal bench to the right.

"This is another example of Bush yielding to the wishes of the conservative right and not the will of the people in this country," said Maynard Jackson, development chairman for the Democratic National Committee. "It is important that President Bush uses his power of judicial appointments as a chance to create equal justice under the law, not turn the judiciary into another conservative think tank.''

Todd Gaziano, a former Justice Department lawyer who now heads the conservative Center for Legal and Judicial Studies in Washington, said Bush should move quickly to stock the court. Given the number of vacancies, he said, "the workload on the existing judges is large, and he should respect the request of the chief justice of the United States (William Rehnquist) that he pay a lot of attention to keeping the vacancy level down.''

Guiding judicial nominees is a time-consuming process that requires FBI background checks, Senate hearings and, usually, a floor vote to confirm, meaning it takes months to get a new judge on the bench.

But there are political reasons as well. Two elderly conservative Republicans, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, are in delicate health. Given the current 50-50 split in the Senate and the fact that the governors of both states are Democrats, the GOP could lose control of the upper chamber if either lawmaker is forced to step down. That would deprive Bush of a valuable edge.

Gaziano said he understands the reports of poor health are "greatly exaggerated.''

"That said, I don't doubt some concern for the slim margin of control is factoring into the process,'' he said.

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