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Partisan politics reared its head frequently in the Washington, D.C., federal courts in 2000. At year’s end, the U.S. District Court remained under the cloud of a politically charged special counsel probe concerning accusations that its chief judge had steered criminal cases against Democratic fund-raisers to appointees of President Bill Clinton. Following a complaint made by Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., and the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, a special five-member committee of the D.C. federal courts named Atlanta lawyer Joe Whitley to spearhead an investigation. Coble, who says his motivations are nonpartisan, noted that in 1998 Chief Judge Norma Holloway Johnson assigned five cases against President Clinton’s political allies to Clinton-nominated district judges. He suggested that a political fix might be in. Johnson’s lawyer, Michael Madigan of Dallas-based Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld’s D.C. office, insists that the chief judge’s motivations in using a now-abolished rule allowing nonrandom assignments were completely aboveboard and had nothing to do with partisan politics. By many accounts, the investigation, the conclusion of which has not been publicly announced, has increased tension and uncertainty in the courthouse. This year, Chief Judge Johnson also presided over a politically touchy case involving contempt-of-court charges against Charles Bakaly III, spokesman for former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. Johnson had asked the Department of Justice to prosecute Bakaly after she expressed concern that the former Starr aide had lied in affidavits about his contacts with New York Times reporter Don Van Natta Jr. Van Natta was writing a story about discussions in Starr’s office about indicting Clinton. After a trial that lasted four days in midsummer, Johnson acquitted Bakaly, finding that the government hadn’t proved that he had intentionally lied to the court. Election-year politics also affected the nomination process in District Court. Two Clinton nominees for the trial court — Public Defender Service official James Klein and prosecutor Rhonda Fields — were never given a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, even though no one raised questions about either nominee’s qualifications. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which has been relatively free of partisan politics for years, also ran into a political storm over a nomination in May. The choice of Hogan & Hartson partner Allen Snyder for the circuit was the underlying issue in dueling letters to Judiciary Committee member Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., from then-Judge Laurence Silberman and Chief Judge Harry Edwards. The disagreement between Silberman, a Republican appointee, and Edwards, a Democratic appointee, centered on whether the court needed an eleventh judge to fill the vacancy created in 1999 by Judge Patricia Wald’s retirement. Silberman marshaled statistics to show that the court was barely busy enough to keep 10 judges fully employed. Edwards brought data to illustrate that the court has complex cases that require a full complement of judges. Snyder’s nomination did not get a floor vote in the Republican Senate in 2000. The court now has only nine full-time judges — four nominated by Democratic presidents and five by Republicans — after Silberman took senior status on Nov. 1. Another key player will change his status as well. Edwards’ seven-year term as chief judge ends in August 2001, although he will remain an active judge on the court. Judge Stephen Williams is in line to be the next chief judge, if he wants the job. Williams will be able to serve for five years as chief, until he turns 70 in September 2006. Next year promises fireworks in a major case with distinct political overtones. The Microsoft Corp.’s antitrust appeal is set for argument in February before the en banc court. Two of the nine judges — Democratic appointee Merrick Garland and GOP nominee Karen LeCraft Henderson — are recused.

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