House Majority Whip Tom DeLay admits he is trying to intimidate federal judges.

"The judges need to be intimidated," the Texas Republican said. "They need to uphold the Constitution." If they don't behave, "we're going to go after them in a big way."

When Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) tried to explain last week why one Californian's nomination to an appeals court has been delayed for two years he said, "If you want to blame somebody for the slowness of approving judges to the 9th Circuit, blame the Clinton and Carter appointees who have been ignoring the law and are true examples of activist judging."

Republicans in Congress are engaged in a broad-based, sustained effort targeting the federal bench. GOP lawmakers have talked about impeaching judges for unpopular decisions, proposed term limits and suggested reducing the number of appeals judges. They have held hearings on "judicial activism" -- singling out judges who they think have gone beyond interpreting the law to making it -- and offered legislation that would shrink a judge's authority.

Complaints about the judiciary are as old as the institution itself, but the current attack on the bench is something fresh in degree and duration.

Hatch's comments are some of his strongest ever linking Senate delays in approving the president's nominees to conservatives' fears of liberalism on the bench. The consequence of liberal judges, Hatch and other critics say, is that today's courts are too quick to intervene in problems that belong to legislatures, go easy on criminals and wrongly create new rights for individuals at the expense of the majority.

Sheldon Goldman, a University of Massachusetts political science professor who has tracked judicial nominations for four decades, contends all of the GOP efforts "hang together by a common thread, which is to deny the Clinton administration as many nominations as possible." He calls the delay in confirmations "unprecedented in its scope . . . a congressional analogue of President Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing plan of 1937. Both Roosevelt's court-packing and the Republican's court-blocking plans had their genesis in displeasure with court decisions."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, calls it "an extraordinary effort not only to seriously undermine the workings of the federal court system, but to go after its independence. Budgets will come and go. Trade agreements will come and go. But once you undermine the independence of the judiciary, it will take generations to reverse it."

Those concerns are echoed in an American Bar Association report asserting that the current erosion between Congress and the courts could threaten judges' independence. "While there is nothing new about judicial criticism," the report from the bipartisan ABA commission said, "there are aspects of the present cycle of political debate that are relatively new and lack clear precedent. . . . In recent years . . . an unfortunate shrillness has often marked the tenor of inter-branch discussions. This new skepticism has caused some to fear that Congress is seeking to over-regulate the courts in ways that are not keeping with a truly independent judiciary."

Hatch voiced his complaints about the liberal bent of the California-based 9th Circuit when asked about William A. Fletcher, a University of California-Berkeley law professor whose nomination has been pending for two years.

In an episode last year dubbed "Throw Mama from the Bench" by Senate staff, Republicans had said Fletcher could not be confirmed until his mother, Betty Binns Fletcher, who is a judge on the 9th and a strong liberal, promised to retire. The Republicans invoked an archaic anti-nepotism law that had not been used on recent nominees with familial conflicts. Betty Fletcher agreed to retire -- when her son actually gets approved.

The targeting of judges comes at a time when the bench is far more conservative than it has been in recent decades. The Supreme Court, at the top of the third branch and setting the rules for lower courts, is requiring more scrutiny for affirmative action and race-based policies, curtailing appeals by death row inmates and giving states more authority at the expense of Washington lawmakers.

President Clinton's judges -- who make up about one-fourth of the whole judiciary -- are generally pragmatic moderates. A study by three political scientists published in Judicature magazine found Clinton's judges less liberal than President Jimmy Carter's and more akin to GOP President Gerald R. Ford's appointees.

But there are are exceptions, and certain rulings have become rallying points for Republicans who complain about judicial activism. While the GOP efforts are not monolithic (Hatch and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, for example, oppose using impeachment, as DeLay would, to punish unpopular rulings) there are a handful of decisions all critics rely on: A March 1996 ruling by U.S. District Judge Harold Baer of New York to suppress drug evidence seized by police who became suspicious when men began running away from a car as the officers approach. Baer said that in that particular neighborhood people reasonably feared and ran from police, so the officers did not have sufficient reason to believe that a crime had just occurred and to stop and search the car. Prosecutors asked Baer to reconsider his decision to suppress the drug evidence found in the car, and Baer reversed himself. During that period, then-Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who was making Clinton's judicial choices a presidential campaign issue, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) threatened impeachment.

After that incident, in which the Clinton White House also complained about Baer, four judges on a New York-based appeals court issued a statement saying attacks had gone too far and noting that most rulings are subject to appeal. "When a judge is threatened with a call for resignation or impeachment because of disagreement with a ruling, the entire process of orderly resolution of legal disputes is undermined," the judges said.

A decision last December by U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson blocking enforcement of California's Proposition 209, which banned the use of race and sex preferences in state hiring and college admissions. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Henderson a few months later; yet, the initial order has become a catalyst for complaint and legislation, including a bill by Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) that would require that a three-judge panel, rather than a single judge, hears cases involving lawsuits against voter initiatives. A 9th Circuit decision in August blocking the scheduled execution of convicted murderer and rapist Thomas Martin Thompson and allowing him another appeal. The state contends the 9th Circuit judges violated a 1996 federal law intended to cut down on such appeals. Said Hatch: "Clearly, these are judges who don't understand the rule of law. That's the type of stuff that is causing this administration all kinds of trouble."

A record-low number of judges were confirmed in the last Congress. The pace has picked up this session, but as of Friday there were 97 vacancies on the 845-member bench. Thirty of those vacancies have been pending for more than 18 months.

The administration, which has sent up nominations for 50 of the vacancies, until recently had its own problems putting up names in a prompt fashion. Clinton has said virtually nothing about GOP attacks on the bench, but in a speech last month Attorney General Janet Reno said: "Surely the {Constitution's} framers did not intend Congress to obstruct the appointment of much-needed judges, but rather simply to ensure that well-qualified individuals were appointed to the federal bench."

Jonathan Yarowsky, special associate counsel to the president, said last week that if senators use the "amorphous concept of judicial activism" as a measure of a nominee's fitness for the bench, delays are likely to persist. "Certainly, threatening calls for the mass impeachment of sitting judges only roil the waters further," he said.

DeLay, who has taken the lead in urging for impeachments, has yet to initiate a formal complaint against any judge. "You have to have a good candidate for impeachment, in order to make it stick," he said. "We are doing a lot of research on judges' records to see what kinds of attitudes they have."

Judges have said little publicly on whether all this is getting to them. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, an outspoken conservative, said he did not think the move to impeach liberal judges was going anywhere and added, according to an Associated Press report, "I think . . . it shouldn't go anywhere."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has said it is fine to criticize judges but asserted that critics should not try to force a judge from the bench because of his or her rulings. The independence of the judiciary, Rehnquist said, is "one of the crown jewels of our system of government today."

Some judges have protested pending legislation. Appeals Court Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson said a plan to allow dissatisfied litigants to remove a trial judge from a civil case would cause judge-shopping and inject a "new and unnecessary element of gamesmanship" into lawsuits. And Procter Hug Jr., chief judge of the 9th Circuit, has argued against a plan to divide up that large circuit covering nine states and two territories -- a proposal driven in part by dissatisfaction with the court's liberal-leaning decisions on environmental issues.

Johnny H. Killian, a Congressional Research Service legal analyst and a member of the ABA commission on judicial independence, said life-tenured judges are able to fend for themselves. But he said the atmosphere is likely to cause some judges "to look over their shoulder." But another commission member, Theodore B. Olson, who was an official in the Reagan Justice Department, said: "The federal judiciary is not under any serious or significant attack. . . . I don't know any judge who acknowledges having made a decision because of the pressure."

Hatch said if judicial independence is compromised it will not be because of GOP criticism, rather because of the actions of judges themselves. "The judges are going to undermine their own independence," he said. "This is an important battle for the constitutional fabric of this country." Staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report. CAPTION: "The judges need to be intimidated," says House Majority Whip Tom DeLay.