President Clinton today urged the Senate to accelerate the pace of judicial confirmations, charging that by playing politics with the judicial system, Republicans have caused a "mounting vacancy crisis in the courts."
Speaking at the annual convention of the American Bar Association, Clinton said that of the 61 judicial nominations he has made this year, only 11 have been approved by the Senate while another 13 are awaiting a Senate vote. Clinton said 37 of his nominees have not yet been acted on by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The result, he said, is a backlog that is beginning to harm the administration of justice. "We cannot expect our society to do justice without enough judges to handle the rising number of cases in our courts," Clinton said.
The Senate and the administration worked last year to fill 65 vacancies on the federal bench. "But no sooner had we begun to remedy the rising emergency than, once again, the politics of the Senate began to stop the confirmation process in its tracks," the president said.
The pace of judicial confirmations has become an increasingly contentious issue in recent months. In January, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, essentially shut down the confirmation process after Clinton refused to nominate a friend of Hatch's to an opening on the federal bench in Utah. The administration recently ended the impasse by nominating that friend, Ted Stewart, a 50-year-old chief of staff to the Utah governor. But making peace with Hatch on Stewart has not led to peace with the Republican leadership.
Nor apparently has it led to full peace with Hatch.
On Sunday, Hatch sent Clinton a letter defending the Senate's pace of judicial confirmations, arguing that the Judiciary Committee has been pursuing its work in a "balanced and thorough manner."
The 11 confirmations "reduce the current number of vacancies to 67 -- approaching the vacancy level that your administration is on record as calling virtual full employment," he wrote. Hatch added that the Republican Senate has been confirming judges at a rate far exceeding the rate at which Democrats confirmed judges during the Bush administration. In May 1991, he noted, there were 148 vacancies.
But officials at the Justice Department said that Hatch had omitted some facts and mischaracterized others.
"He is wrong -- flat out wrong," said Eleanor D. Acheson, assistant attorney general in the Office of Policy Development, which vets judicial nominees. In 1994, she said Clinton did discuss "full employment" in the judiciary, but he was referring to the possibility that the number of vacancies could fall as low as 39 -- not the 67 Hatch cited.
Moreover, she said, Hatch did not mention that in late 1990, about 85 new seats were added to the federal judiciary, which explains why there were so many openings in May 1991. "In addition, the Bush administration sent up very few nominations that year," Acheson said.
Clinton's ABA speech was part of a day of rhetorical attacks on Republicans. At a ceremony for graduates of AmeriCorps earlier in the day, Clinton criticized the GOP for seeking to eliminate funding for the volunteer service program. The efforts to "zero out" the program, he said, show that Republicans "know they can't pay for their tax cut without big cuts" in existing programs.
In his address to the lawyers, Clinton said that the United States could not hope to set an example of fairness to the world if its own judicial system could not mete out justice. And he said that justice would elude the system for as long as women and minorities are underrepresented on the federal bench. Nine of the 13 candidates who have been voted out of committee, but not voted on by the Senate, Clinton said, are women or minorities.
"Anybody who has ever been in a courtroom, either as an advocate or a client, knows that if you are in court, the judge is the most important person in the world. And to have a judiciary that reflects the diversity of America, as well as its commitment to equal justice under law, and to professional excellence is a profoundly important national goal."