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Ending a nearly half-century tradition, President George W. Bush announced Thursday that the American Bar Association would no longer play an early-stage role in vetting nominees for the federal judiciary. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales told ABA President Martha Barnett and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee that the ABA’s views will still be heard, but that the organization will not have special status in the nomination process. “The question is whether the ABA should play a unique, quasi-official role and then have its voice heard before and above all others,” Gonzales wrote. “We do not think that kind of preferential arrangement is either appropriate or fair.” The announcement ends a week of leaks and speculation over the ABA’s role as the Bush Administration gears up for its first round of judicial nominations. The ABA’s Barnett met with Gonzales and Attorney General John Ashcroft on March 19, but was left in limbo until Thursday, when Bush apparently signed off on the question. Barnett had argued that the ABA’s early review of judicial nominees played an important role by allowing candid assessments of nominees before their names were made public. But conservatives, remembering ABA ratings of Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas that were mixed, have lobbied hard for demoting the ABA. They also point to liberal stands taken by the ABA on abortion and the death penalty — positions the ABA says have been kept separate from the judge-ranking process. Gonzales referred to the ABA’s controversial stands in his letter to Barnett: “It would be particularly inappropriate, in our view, to grant a preferential, quasi-official role to a group, such as the ABA, that takes public positions on divisive political, legal and social issues that come before the courts.” In a press conference late Thursday, Barnett lamented the passing of a “time-honored, historical function” in the nomination process. “We are disheartened by the decision of the Bush administration,” Barnett said. “We are concerned that politics may be taking the place of professionalism” in selecting judges. Barnett said the ABA’s committee on the judiciary will continue to conduct a peer review of judicial nominees, but it will occur after names of nominees are made public.

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