The headline on a Sept. 30 article incorrectly indicated that the American Bar Association cited Thomas B. Griffith's gaps in law licensing when it gave him its lowest possible passing grade for judicial nominees. The ABA ratings are issued without comment. Griffith, President Bush's choice for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, failed to obtain a law license in Utah or renew his D.C. law license during parts of the past six years. (Published 10/1/04)
The American Bar Association yesterday gave President Bush's choice for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia the lowest possible passing grade for judicial nominees, and sources said a Republican Senate chairman was expected to schedule a hearing next week on his nomination.
Thomas B. Griffith, who failed to obtain a law license in Utah or keep a current license in the District during parts of the past six years, received a slight majority from his peers after an unusually long, three-month investigation. Under the ABA's system, that means at least eight of the 15 members on the review panel rated him "qualified" for a seat on the court, and at least six rated him "not qualified."
The national lawyers group, which also offers a higher rating of "well qualified," evaluates judicial nominees for the Senate.
Others have received the same rating and been appointed to the federal judiciary. Of the 10 Bush administration appeals court nominees who received the same rating, six were confirmed to the bench. In President Bill Clinton's second term, two of the five appellate court nominees who received that rating were confirmed.
Griffith has declined to discuss his pending nomination.
A spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) declined to say whether he plans to hold a nomination hearing for Griffith, but committee sources said they expect Hatch to announce today that he will schedule a hearing for Oct. 7. Hatch has campaigned for Griffith's confirmation, telling senators it is personally important that the White House nominee, a friend who hails from Hatch's home state, join the bench.
"The chairman is pretty committed to this nominee and has a high impression of Mr. Griffith," said Hatch spokeswoman Margarita Tapia.
Griffith failed to renew his law license in Washington for three years while he was a lawyer based in the District from 1998 to 2000, as counsel to the U.S. Senate and a partner in the firm of Wiley Rein and Fielding. He said the licensing dues were not paid because of an oversight by his firm's staff.
But that lapse subsequently prevented Griffith from receiving a law license in Utah when he took a job as general counsel for Brigham Young University in August 2000. Griffith said he discovered his D.C. license had expired in 2001. The Utah Bar told Griffith that after so many years without a valid license, the only way he could obtain a Utah license was to take the Utah bar exam. Griffith applied to sit for the arduous test but never took it, bar officials said.
Opponents of Griffith's nomination said yesterday that the low rating and the lateness of the Senate session should prevent him from getting a hearing.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, (D-Vt.) who this month said Griffith's nomination was on "life support," said yesterday that he was surprised the White House and Hatch continue to press for a nominee with "not exactly a confidence-inspiring rating."
"This is a nominee who has been suspended from one legal jurisdiction and who apparently continues to this day to engage in the unauthorized practice of law in another," he said.
Thomas Z. Hayward Jr., a Chicago lawyer with Bell, Boyd & Lloyd and chairman of the ABA standing committee on judicial nominations, acknowledged this is "one of the more difficult" nominee investigations for the bar. He said that after Griffith's license lapses were reported in The Washington Post in June and a preliminary investigation was conducted in July, committee members appeared "very closely split" about whether Griffith met the minimum qualifications for an appellate judgeship.
Hayward said he then ordered a supplemental investigation "to be fair to the nominee." About 40 more people with direct knowledge of Griffith, his licensing lapses in the District and Utah, and his career were interviewed.
"People can respectfully disagree, but we have probably done more investigation into the questions raised by this nomination than anybody else, including the White House, the FBI and the two sides of the [Senate] Judiciary Committee," Hayward said.
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling, Julie Tate and Don Pohlman contributed to this report.