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Six of President George W. Bush’s nominees for the federal appeals courts have received “qualified” or “well qualified” ratings from the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary. These are the first ratings to come from the ABA committee since President George W. Bush in March kicked the group out of its 48-year role prescreening potential judicial nominees for the White House. The ABA saw its stock rise again with the switch to Democratic control of the Senate, and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has promised to consider the evaluations before commencing hearings on any individual nominee. The panel has so far given the highest ratings to three sitting district judges seeking elevation to their appeals courts, according to documents released by the Senate Judiciary Committee and other sources. The committee unanimously gave a “well qualified” rating to Judge Barrington Parker Jr. of the federal trial court in New York, nominated for a seat on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Parker, an African-American, was nominated to the District Court in 1994 by then-President Bill Clinton. A majority of the ABA panel gave Judge Edith Brown Clement of the federal trial court in New Orleans, nominated for the 5th Circuit, a “well qualified” rating. A minority of the panel rated Clement “qualified,” according to the documents, and one unidentified member of the panel abstained from voting. Clement was nominated to the trial court in 1991 by then-President George Bush. A nominee to the 4th Circuit, Judge Dennis Shedd of the federal trial court in Columbia, S.C., also received a majority “well qualified,” minority “qualified” rating, according to a source. When Bush nominated him to his current seat in 1990, Shedd, a former staffer to Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., had received a mixed “qualified/not qualified” ABA rating, according to a press account from the time. Jeffrey Sutton, a 6th Circuit nominee, received a majority “qualified,” minority “well qualified” rating. Sutton, a partner in the Columbus, Ohio, office of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, has successfully argued several Supreme Court cases on behalf of litigants challenging acts of Congress as overreaching, including parts of the Violence Against Women Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Ohio Supreme Court Justice Deborah Cook, also named to the 6th Circuit, was unanimously rated “qualified.” Cook, on the state high court for six years, was strongly backed in her 2000 re-election race by the Ohio business community, but opposed by African-American and plaintiffs’ lawyer groups. The ABA panel was also unanimous in calling 4th Circuit Judge Roger Gregory “qualified.” Gregory was a Richmond, Va., litigator until late last year, when President Clinton, in a controversial move, named him to the 4th Circuit while Congress was out of session. Bush’s decision to renominate Gregory, who is the first African-American judge on the 4th Circuit, was seen as an attempt to mollify Democrats poised to block his nominees. A senior Bush administration official said the ratings “reaffirm the choice of these candidates as ones of high competence and integrity.” The ABA is expected to issue ratings shortly on the five other judicial nominees the President announced in May, including appellate advocates Miguel Estrada and John Roberts Jr. for the D.C. Circuit; North Carolina federal Judge Terrence Boyle for the 4th Circuit; Texas high court Justice Priscilla Owen for the 5th Circuit; and University of Utah law professor Michael McConnell for the 10th Circuit. President Bush has since nominated five others to circuit court posts, and three to district court posts. On Monday, he announced that he intended to nominate Magistrate Judge Terry Wooten to the U.S. District Court in South Carolina. The ABA panel conducts dozens of interviews with lawyers, judges, and others regarding each nominee, evaluates the nominees’ qualifications with regard to integrity, professional competence, and judicial temperament, and hands out one of three ratings: “well qualified,” “qualified,” and “not qualified.” The committee consists of one member from each of 12 federal judicial circuits, two from the huge 9th Circuit, and a chairwoman, Patricia Hynes of Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes & Lerach. Ever since the ABA committee gave mixed ratings to Republican Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork (the majority found him “well qualified” while the minority said he was “not qualified”) and Clarence Thomas (the majority said “qualified,” the minority “not qualified”), the committee has come under strong criticism from conservatives. In March, the Bush administration removed the group from its formal role. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales said at the time that the president did not want to give the ABA a “preferential” role above other groups that could weigh in on the judiciary. Liberal groups decried the decision for removing an important peer review from the process and said it was a sign that Bush was trying to ease the way to push the judiciary to the right. Leahy would not comment on individual nominees on Monday, according to a spokesman. Leahy has said he expects to hold hearings on nominees about two weeks after the Senate leadership completes reorganization negotiations.

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