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Officially, the confirmation process for President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees was stuck in limbo last week as Senate leaders haggled over the rules of engagement under the new Democratic majority. But beyond those negotiations, the judicial nomination process is moving ahead. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he will hold his first confirmation hearings about two weeks after new Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Republicans come to an agreement. And an administration source says Bush is expected to name six to 10 new nominees this week, including several district court choices. The way the Senate will treat judicial nominations is reportedly the sticking point in the secretive negotiations between Daschle and a team of five Republicans, including Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking minority member on the Judiciary Committee. Republicans appear to be seeking some assurances that Democrats will treat the appointees, and any potential Supreme Court nominee, with some degree of deference. Democrats, who will soon have a majority on the committee, may feel little pressure to offer anything more than their counterparts did during the Clinton administration. Leahy has already said he will enforce the “blue slip” rule, by which the Judiciary Committee will not hold hearings or votes on nominees opposed by home-state senators. Republicans argue this rule gives individual senators too much power over presidential nominations. President Bush so far has made 17 nominations — 15 to circuit courts of appeals and two to district courts. Around the country, 104 federal judgeships are vacant — 33 on circuit courts and 71 on district courts. None of Bush’s selections have been the subject of hearings before the Judiciary Committee. When the committee was in its final days of Republican control, three nominees — John Roberts Jr. for the D.C. Circuit and 6th Circuit nominees Deborah Cook and Jeffrey Sutton — had been scheduled to appear at a May 23 hearing. But their day before, the panel was scuttled after vehement opposition by Democrats, who the next day won control of the Senate when Vermont Sen. James Jeffords announced he would defect from the GOP and become an independent. Democrats had argued that the committee should not hold hearings until the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary had completed its reviews of nominees. Now that things have changed, it’s unlikely that Leahy would hold hearings on any nominee whose ABA rating is not completed. Leahy spokesman David Carle says the committee has received a few of the ratings so far, but is not yet prepared to make them public. While the ABA conducts an extensive background check, the reviews typically consist of only one sheet of paper describing the nominee as “well qualified,” “qualified,” or “not qualified.” Carle also says the committee had yet to choose which of the nominees will be the first to have hearings. The Judiciary Committee itself will undergo a change as a result of the power shift, with the likely scenario being one Democrat joining the 18-member committee to give the Democrats a one-vote majority. Leahy has spoken to former trial lawyer Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina about the slot, but no agreement has been reached. A spokeswoman for Sen. Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat who has argued for Democrats to give great deference to President Bush’s nominations, calls speculation that Miller was angling for a spot on judiciary “overblown.” “He’s perfectly happy with what he’s got,” said Miller press secretary Joan Kirchner, referring to Miller’s current posts on the agriculture, banking and veteran’s affairs committees. NAME GAME Administration officials would not say who Bush will nominate next week, but it could be time for several previously reported candidates to have their day. Among those are U.S. Magistrate Judge William Steele of Mobile, Ala., for the 11th Circuit; Iowa U.S. District Judge Michael Melloy, for the 8th Circuit; and University of Utah professor Paul Cassell, for a district court seat in that state. In March, Tennessee Republican Sens. Fred Thompson and Bill Frist made three recommendations for a single open seat on the 6th Circuit. They are: Robert Echols, chief U.S. district judge in Nashville; Julia Gibbons, chief U.S. district judge in Memphis; and Lin Howard of Harwell Howard Hyne Gabbert & Manner in Nashville. MONTANA CLIMBERS Montana may not be ground zero of the political warfare over judges, but it has gotten more than its share of attention from the Bush administration. If the Senate confirms litigator Sam Haddon and U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard Cebull, it’s a good bet that folks with business before the federal court there will breathe a sigh of relief. The court has only three judges, and in the past year, Judges Jack Shanstrom and Charles Lovell took senior status, meaning they had significantly reduced their caseloads. That leaves Chief Judge Donald Molloy as the court’s only active judge. He has had to focus on criminal cases in order to comply with speedy trial demands, while the civil docket has taken a back seat. Fortunately for Molloy, Montana Sens. Conrad Burns, a Republican, and Max Baucus, a Democrat, were able to agree on recommendations for the posts. Such bipartisan agreement certainly helped speed the process at the White House and could do the same in the Senate. Meanwhile, the Montana federal court has been relying on help from nearby states. Lou Aleksich, the court clerk, says four federal judges have come to Montana to preside over civil trials this month.

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