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To mark our 30th anniversary, we’ve reached into our archives to highlight key events and players who made a difference since we made our debut. A version of the following article appeared in the August 7, 2000 edition…
Seats on the federal bench are some of the most powerful political chits in Washington. And for six years, President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Senate have been fighting over them, sometimes bitterly. Now, with the Clinton administration and the 106th Congress entering their waning moments, the battles are growing more bitter still. Overall Clinton has appointed more than 370 judges, or almost 45 percent of the federal judiciary. But with an election in three months that holds open the possibility of a GOP return to the White House after an eight-year absence, the only number with any significant meaning is 35. That’s how many judicial nominees are awaiting Senate confirmation. Each nominee � including 13 who have waited a year or more even to get a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee � is hoping to slip through when the Senate reconvenes next month for a frenetic few weeks of pre-election lawmaking. It won’t be easy. The political calculus has changed. The more vacant judgeships that get filled between now and Nov. 7, the fewer that will be left open for the next president�whether it’s Al Gore or George W. Bush. And with various senators facing tough re-election campaigns, leaders on Capitol Hill have reason to bend. As a result, the usual horse-trading that goes on behind the scenes of any judicial selection has found an election-year focus. Ironically, the judicial nominees who have been waiting around the longest are least likely to be confirmed. Indeed, of the last 12 judges approved by the Senate, 11 went from nomination to confirmation in under three months. In July, three district court candidates from Arizona raced through the process: Each was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee � just six days after they were nominated. The Senate recessed on July 27 before taking a floor vote, but it’s expected the nominees will be confirmed in the fall. Meanwhile, the remaining 31 nominees wonder whether any of them will get through the Senate gantlet at all. Among them are Allen Snyder and Bonnie Campbell, nominees for the D.C. Circuit and the 8th Circuit, respectively. They each had hearings in May, but the committee has not yet voted on them. Democrats have railed on Republicans to move more nominations for the circuit courts, while conservative activists have begged the GOP to stall on the hope of a presidential victory by George W. Bush. Last month, Thomas Jipping of the Free Congress Foundation’s Judicial Selection Monitoring Project sent a letter to Republican senators pointing out that Clinton has appointed nearly as many judges as Ronald Reagan, who � unlike Clinton � had the benefit of six years in which the Senate was controlled by his own party. “Enough is enough,” Jipping wrote. “Mr. Clinton has had, by any objective measure, a very successful run at changing the judiciary and his activists will be serving for many years to come.” Clinton spokesman Elliot Diringer says, “We’ll continue to push hard to win confirmations for our nominees, many of whom have been waiting far too long.” In addition, the president plans to nominate lawyers to fill about 27 more vacancies on the federal bench Such 11th hour efforts, even in a politically charged election season, might seem futile. But in the intricate politics of judicial nominations, anything is possible.
Update: President Clinton wouldn’t get many more nominees through the Senate, though he did end up, as conservatives feared, practically tying Ronald Reagan on judicial appointments. His successor, President George W. Bush, has been far less lucky. As we note this week, Bush has appointed 294 judges to the federal bench � nearly 80 less than the two most recent two-term presidents, Reagan and Clinton, and just 30 more than Jimmy Carter, who served a single term. Bush, however, can console himself with a pair of key appointments to the Supreme Court: Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito Jr. They’ll help ensure his judicial legacy no matter who takes the White House in November.

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