Looking for a seat on the federal bench? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Al Kamen
Columnist October 18, 2011

Hoping for a White House nomination to the federal bench? Already in the pipeline? Either way, you may not want to get measured for those new black robes just yet.

It’s crunch time for judges as the clock winds down on the number of days remaining in this year’s Senate session — which may be their best shot at winning that chamber’s approval.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Presidential election years are notoriously bad for nominees. For one thing, the Senate will probably meet fewer days in 2012, as it usually has in presidential election years. And the mood in Congress gets even testier, making what’s become a contentious process that much more partisan.

And during recent presidential election years, confirmation votes for circuit court nominees end in early summer. Last votes for district court nominees were in September or October.

The Senate isn’t waiting for the inevitable presidential ad blitzing to ramp up the acrimony over judges. In recent weeks, a spat has erupted in the Senate over the pace of judicial nominations. The debate turns on how one defines slow.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy is charging that Republicans are stalling on President Obama’s nominees, while Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the committee’s ranking Republican, says the chamber is trotting along, moving judges faster than it did under George W. Bush.

But the two are using apples-and-oranges data, our colleague Emily Heil reports. Grassley took to the Senate floor last week, noting that Obama’s circuit court nominees wait an average of 66 days for a hearing, while Bush’s waited 247; he says Obama’s district court nominees waited 79 to Bush’s 100.

Leahy argues that that’s because the Bush administration used a different process for submitting nominations, simultaneously nominating a judge and submitting him or her for the standard (and time-consuming) American Bar Association review. The Obama administration waits until the review is complete before submitting the name.

Here’s one bottom line: Obama’s confirmation rate for both circuit and district court nominees is a dismal 68 percent, compared with Bush’s 81 percent and Bill Clinton’s 82 percent.

The tussle over nominations, oddly enough, comes just as the Senate is in the throes of a particularly productive confirming spurt: Its members have approved 11 judges since returning from the September recess (maybe they just needed a little time in the time-out corner before deciding they could get along).

Hungary hearts

An item in Friday’s column about Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban apparently kicked up something of a fuss in Budapest. Orban, rebuked publicly in June by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for autocratic tendencies, not to mention his delusions of grandeur, has been ducking our ambassador to Hungary, Eleni Tsakopolous Kounalakis.

Kounalakis has been trying for a couple of months to deliver a formal protest, or demarche, to Orban about Washington’s unhappiness with his dreadful behavior. But Orban’s just been too busy to receive her.

Asked last week about Friday’s item, Orban’s spokesman told a local paper, Nepszabadsag, that it had already been agreed that Kounalakis “will be received” next week. She just had to wait her turn, the spokesman said.

Sure. No doubt there might have been ambassadors from really important countries who were higher on the list, maybe people from places that run smoothly, like China, Belarus or Burma.

We’re hearing the Tuesday meeting went swimmingly — though it’s unclear whether he kissed her hand again — and that Orban assured Kounalakis that he had or would soon address U.S. concerns about a new constitution that gave him more powers and about his cracking down on the media and political opposition.

Apparently she was convinced Orban will mend his ways. Well, as Ronald Reagan used to say, “Trust but verify.”

Casino Jack’s harder truth

Disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff may not be seeing all of the profits from his new book. A federal court here is about to garnish money earned from “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist” and will use it to pay back the author’s victims.

The court issued an Oct. 11 order instructing WorldNetDaily Books, the Washington-based publisher of the upcoming tome, to turn over any money it owes Abramoff under the book contract or other agreements. The order may be appealed, however.

The court noted that after he was convicted of fraud, corruption and conspiracy stemming from shady lobbying deals, Abramoff was ordered to pay back more than $23 million to his victims, mostly to Native American tribes that were his clients. He still owes more than $22.7 million, the court said.

Abramoff’s first-person account of his rise and spectacular fall, including a 31 / 2-year stint in federal prison that ended in June 2010, is slated to hit bookstands Nov. 14. Other books have chronicled the convicted lobbyist’s tale, but Abramoff’s self-penned tale is being billed as a “corrective” version of the story.

Penalty box stays empty

Doesn’t look as though Amnesty International is going to be successful in getting the Canadians to arrest George W. Bush when he goes to Canada on Thursday to give a speech for a cool $150,000.

Amnesty has said the Canadians were obliged under international law to arrest and prosecute the former president for crimes “under international law including torture.” Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney , a staunch Bush defender, blasted Amnesty, calling the effort a “stunt.”

Bush and Bill Clinton, also reportedly getting 150 large to speak, will be in Surrey, B.C., to attend a regional economic development conference.

Amnesty, unable to get the Mounties to act, said Tuesday that it will hold a protest rally near Bush’s hotel during his visit.

Freedom of what now?

If a meeting about government transparency is held in secret, does it make a sound?

The watchdog group Judicial Watch is touting some documents it obtained showing that the White House banned the news media from covering a Justice Department meeting. The topic of that clandestine gathering? Why, openness in government, of course.

In 2009, when the department was planning a workshop for its staff on complying with the Freedom of Information Act, the White House decided that nosy reporters weren’t welcome. Judicial Watch this week obtained a series of e-mails between the White House and Justice at the time about whether scribes should be allowed in the room.

A sample: “After talking with . . . ben labolt [then the assistant White House press secretary], the decision is that the training will be closed to the press,” Gina Talamona, deputy director for Justice’s Office of Public Affairs, wrote in an e-mail to colleagues.

Best of all, Judicial Watch obtained those e-mails using the Freedom of Information Act, the very subject of the hush-hush briefing.

Hoping for a White House nomination to the federal bench? Already in the pipeline? Either way, you may not want to get measured for those new black robes just yet.

It’s crunch time for judges as the clock winds down on the number of days remaining in this year’s Senate session — which may be their best shot at winning that chamber’s approval.

Presidential election years are notoriously bad for nominees. For one thing, the Senate will probably meet fewer days in 2012, as it usually has in presidential election years. And the mood in Congress gets even testier, making what’s become a contentious process that much more partisan.

And during recent presidential election years, confirmation votes for circuit court nominees end in early summer. Last votes for district court nominees were in September or October.

The Senate isn’t waiting for the inevitable presidential ad blitzing to ramp up the acrimony over judges. In recent weeks, a spat has erupted in the Senate over the pace of judicial nominations. The debate turns on how one defines slow.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy is charging that Republicans are stalling on President Obama’s nominees, while Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the committee’s ranking Republican, says the chamber is trotting along, moving judges faster than it did under George W. Bush.

But the two are using apples-and-oranges data, our colleague Emily Heil reports. Grassley took to the Senate floor last week, noting that Obama’s circuit court nominees wait an average of 66 days for a hearing, while Bush’s waited 247; he says Obama’s district court nominees waited 79 to Bush’s 100.

Leahy argues that that’s because the Bush administration used a different process for submitting nominations, simultaneously nominating a judge and submitting him or her for the standard (and time-consuming) American Bar Association review. The Obama administration waits until the review is complete before submitting the name.

Here’s one bottom line: Obama’s confirmation rate for both circuit and district court nominees is a dismal 68 percent, compared with Bush’s 81 percent and Bill Clinton’s 82 percent.

The tussle over nominations, oddly enough, comes just as the Senate is in the throes of a particularly productive confirming spurt: Its members have approved 11 judges since returning from the September recess (maybe they just needed a little time in the time-out corner before deciding they could get along).

Hungary hearts

An item in Friday’s column about Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban apparently kicked up something of a fuss in Budapest. Orban, rebuked publicly in June by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for autocratic tendencies, not to mention his delusions of grandeur, has been ducking our ambassador to Hungary, Eleni Tsakopolous Kounalakis.

Kounalakis has been trying for a couple of months to deliver a formal protest, or demarche, to Orban about Washington’s unhappiness with his dreadful behavior. But Orban’s just been too busy to receive her.

Asked last week about Friday’s item, Orban’s spokesman told a local paper, Nepszabadsag, that it had already been agreed that Kounalakis “will be received” next week. She just had to wait her turn, the spokesman said.

Sure. No doubt there might have been ambassadors from really important countries who were higher on the list, maybe people from places that run smoothly, like China, Belarus or Burma.

We’re hearing the Tuesday meeting went swimmingly — though it’s unclear whether he kissed her hand again — and that Orban assured Kounalakis that he had or would soon address U.S. concerns about a new constitution that gave him more powers and about his cracking down on the media and political opposition.

Apparently she was convinced Orban will mend his ways. Well, as Ronald Reagan used to say, “Trust but verify.”

Casino Jack’s harder truth

Disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff may not be seeing all of the profits from his new book. A federal court here is about to garnish money earned from “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist” and will use it to pay back the author’s victims.

The court issued an Oct. 11 order instructing WorldNetDaily Books, the Washington-based publisher of the upcoming tome, to turn over any money it owes Abramoff under the book contract or other agreements. The order may be appealed, however.

The court noted that after he was convicted of fraud, corruption and conspiracy stemming from shady lobbying deals, Abramoff was ordered to pay back more than $23 million to his victims, mostly to Native American tribes that were his clients. He still owes more than $22.7 million, the court said.

Abramoff’s first-person account of his rise and spectacular fall, including a 31 / 2-year stint in federal prison that ended in June 2010, is slated to hit bookstands Nov. 14. Other books have chronicled the convicted lobbyist’s tale, but Abramoff’s self-penned tale is being billed as a “corrective” version of the story.

Penalty box stays empty

Doesn’t look as though Amnesty International is going to be successful in getting the Canadians to arrest George W. Bush when he goes to Canada on Thursday to give a speech for a cool $150,000.

Amnesty has said the Canadians were obliged under international law to arrest and prosecute the former president for crimes “under international law including torture.” Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney , a staunch Bush defender, blasted Amnesty, calling the effort a “stunt.”

Bush and Bill Clinton, also reportedly getting 150 large to speak, will be in Surrey, B.C., to attend a regional economic development conference.

Amnesty, unable to get the Mounties to act, said Tuesday that it will hold a protest rally near Bush’s hotel during his visit.

Freedom of what now?

If a meeting about government transparency is held in secret, does it make a sound?

The watchdog group Judicial Watch is touting some documents it obtained showing that the White House banned the news media from covering a Justice Department meeting. The topic of that clandestine gathering? Why, openness in government, of course.

In 2009, when the department was planning a workshop for its staff on complying with the Freedom of Information Act, the White House decided that nosy reporters weren’t welcome. Judicial Watch this week obtained a series of e-mails between the White House and Justice at the time about whether scribes should be allowed in the room.

A sample: “After talking with . . . ben labolt [then the assistant White House press secretary], the decision is that the training will be closed to the press,” Gina Talamona, deputy director for Justice’s Office of Public Affairs, wrote in an e-mail to colleagues.

Best of all, Judicial Watch obtained those e-mails using the Freedom of Information Act, the very subject of the hush-hush briefing.

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