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In a joint letter to President Bush, Florida’s Democratic senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, have protested recent White House actions they say “seem to violate the rules of procedure aimed at selecting well-qualified federal judicial and law enforcement candidates in Florida.” The letter, dated May 13, was made public Tuesday. Graham and Nelson are unhappy about the White House’s recent handling of the appointment processes for a federal district judgeship in Miami and the U.S. marshal’s post in Miami. The Daily Business Review previously reported that in both cases, the nominating process established by Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida’s two senior Republican congressmen was violated. “We were dismayed to learn of recent decisions by the White House Counsel’s Office that suggest the existing commissions are being ignored,” the letter says. “In the case of Florida, the rules of procedure created to guide the candidate selection process were circumvented twice in less than a month.” Democrats and some non-Democrats, however, insist that the Bush brothers are manipulating the nominating system to advance Cuban-Americans for federal office in an effort to solidify political support for the governor during his current re-election campaign. Graham, the state’s senior Democrat, and Nelson were scheduled to meet with White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales late Wednesday “to share our concerns, and to discuss ways to restore the public’s confidence in the people nominated to serve the bench.” Those concerns, fueled by the senators’ feelings that they’ve been shoved aside in the selection process, focus on a nominating process the senators think has gone awry. “For more than a decade, the state of Florida had an outstanding record of filling judicial vacancies through a nonpartisan, merit-based process,” the senators wrote. “From 1988 through 2000, under two presidents of different political parties, this selection process filled 29 openings on district courts in Florida.” But Miami lawyer Roberto Martinez, a Republican who heads the screening committee for federal judicial candidates in Florida, indicated Tuesday he views the process under the Bush White House differently than the senators. “I respect our senators, but I respectfully disagree with their letter,” Martinez said. Starting early last month, the White House stirred controversy with its surprise decision to rebuff the three finalists — including current U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis — recommended by Florida’s Republican-dominated Federal Judicial Nominating Commission to fill a vacant judgeship in Miami. In response, the JNC forwarded three more names to the White House on May 1, including that of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cecilia Altonaga. The judge, a Cuban-American, is widely believed by knowledgeable observers to be the White House’s choice for the job. The letter, while not naming names, says the “set-aside” of the three original finalists sidestepped the “mutually agreed-upon process.” “A similar situation arose recently when three candidates for United States marshal in the southern district were cast aside by the White House in favor of an individual who was not even among the original 224 applicants reviewed by the Marshal Nominating Commission,” the senators wrote. The Daily Business Review reported April 26 that President Bush’s choice for the job is another Cuban-American woman, Christina Fernandez-Pharo. She beat out three more experienced white men vetted and recommended by a bipartisan nominating commission. Fernandez-Pharo is a deputy U.S. marshal in Miami and the office’s senior Cuban-American female. The White House won’t officially announce her selection until the completion of an FBI background check. In their letter, Graham and Nelson declare their “strong support” for citizen commissions that review and nominate candidates for presidential appointments. And they caution that the White House’s recent actions “complicate” commissioners’ efforts to find qualified candidates. “They also discourage potential applicants from subjecting themselves to a process that is subject to change,” the letter says. “Creating a consensus can be difficult under any circumstance, but it’s nearly impossible when the process designed to achieve agreement is disregarded. Furthermore, ignoring local input can damage a community’s confidence in its law enforcement and judicial officials.”

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