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    A Times Editorial

    Fair confirmation needed

    President Bush's first crop of judicial nominees deserves fair,civil and prompt hearings in the Senate.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001

    The judicial confirmation process has become an arena for brutal partisan and ideological warfare in Washington. Both parties play the game, but that doesn't make it right. The time between nomination and confirmation grows longer and longer, while vacancies on the federal bench strain the court system and delay justice. The Senate has a constitutional charge to "advise and consent" on judicial nominations -- not to advise and delay.

    President Bush called for a "return of civility and dignity to the confirmation process" as he sent to Capitol Hill his first group of judicial nominees. He asked Democrats to "rise above the bitterness of the past" and to vote promptly on his choices. Republicans, however, didn't believe in speedy confirmation votes when Bill Clinton was president. Most Americans don't want to see the kind of personal attacks and ideological litmus tests that both Democrats and Republicans have engaged in. But neither do they expect the Senate to be a rubber stamp. Senators have a duty to subject nominees to fair scrutiny before confirming lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary.

    Bush's call for civility and bipartisanship is disingenuous given the prelude to his first batch of judicial nominations. He discarded the half-century-old practice of soliciting evaluations of nominees from the American Bar Association. Instead, he has turned to in-house interviews by members of the Federalist Society, a conservative group. Bush also failed to consult with opposition-party senators to the extent other presidents have.

    Senators will be examining a diverse collection of Bush nominees. Six of Bush's 11 nominees to the federal appeals courts, where Bush expects to make his greatest mark, are minorities or women, including two African-Americans first nominated by President Clinton. Most are sitting state or federal judges who possess solid legal qualifications.

    As you might expect, most of the nominees are conservatives with substantial legal credentials. But a few of them have records that raise legitimate questions about their judicial philosophy and readiness to apply precedent. The most controversial nominee is Terrence Boyle, a federal district judge in North Carolina tapped for a seat on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Boyle has long been a favorite of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., but the state's Democratic senator, John Edwards, opposes the nomination.

    Presidents are entitled to considerable deference in their judicial selections, but the Constitution did not contemplate that they be given a free hand in packing the federal courts. The Senate has every right and responsibility consider a nominee's record, ideology and temperament, among other qualifications.

    That said, the "advise and consent" power rests with the Senate, not any individual member, and it can be exercised only if nominees are extended full consideration. In the current battle over "blue slips" -- the time-honored practice whereby a home-state senator can single-handedly "kill" a nomination -- Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch wants to relax this policy. Democrats are fighting to retain it, saying Republicans should play by the same rules they demanded when Democrats controlled the Senate. However, no individual senator, Democrat or Republican, should have a veto that shuts down the entire confirmation process.

    Federal appellate courts struggle with heavy caseloads. The continuing vacancies -- many purposely left unfilled by Senate Republicans during the Clinton years -- jeopardize the speed and quality of justice. Americans deserve fair, civil and prompt hearings on Bush's first crop of nominees. Senators need to lift the confirmation process out of the muck of political payback.

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