- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2000

A judicial body that oversees the conduct of judges at the federal court in Washington, D.C., yesterday ordered a new investigation into the assignment of criminal cases involving friends and associates of President Clinton to judges appointed by the president.

The Judicial Council of the D.C. Circuit, in a terse two-paragraph ruling, ordered acting Appeals Court Chief Judge Stephen F. Williams to determine why a random computer assignment system at the court was bypassed in four campaign fund-raising prosecutions and a tax-evasion case against Clinton pal Webster L. Hubbell.

Chief District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson abandoned the computer system to send the cases to judges appointed by Mr. Clinton. She has declined public comment on the decision, but told The Washington Times in a letter last month she was authorized to assign "protracted or complex criminal cases to consenting judges when circumstances warrant," although she did not elaborate.

The new investigation was sought by Rep. Howard Coble, North Carolina Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees the courts, and Judicial Watch, a conservative public interest law firm.

Mr. Coble asked the Judicial Council in January to investigate the case assignments, saying there were questions concerning the propriety of Judge Johnson's decision to bypass random assignments.

"I have traditionally been reluctant to insert my oars into judicial waters, but this situation cried out for oars to be inserted," Mr. Coble said yesterday. "Judge Johnson received notice of my concerns in August and in November, and she declined to respond.

"That set a bell off in my head and prompted me to get involved, and while I'm not interested in slam-dunking anyone, there is smoke here and we need to find out if there also is a fire," he said.

Mr. Coble, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the courts and intellectual property, said in his Judicial Council letter the judge's actions "may have been prejudicial to the effective and impartial administration" of the court's business.

"Judge Johnson bypassed the random case-assignment process in four campaign-finance cases potentially embarrassing to the president, the [Democratic National Committee] and Democrats generally, and one case involving President Clinton's close personal friend, Webster Hubbell," he said. "Did Chief Judge Johnson abuse her discretion under the rule and should she have allowed the normal random case assignment to occur?"

Judicial Watch's complaint in the case was dismissed by Judge Williams, who labeled the matter as "frivolous" in a November opinion.

"All we requested was an investigation and this is an important step in that direction," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch.

Earlier this month, senior judges at the federal court abolished the policy that let Judge Johnson bypass the random assignment system. Instead, they created a new system in which high-profile or lengthy cases will be assigned on a random basis to a separate pool that will include all the judges.

Mr. Coble's concerns focused on cases involving Mr. Hubbell, former associate attorney general; Arkansas businessman Charles Yah Lin Trie; Democratic fund-raiser Howard Glicken; Thai lobbyist Pauline Kanchanalak; and Miami fund-raiser Mark B. Jimenez.

The judges were Paul L. Friedman, James Robertson and Emmet G. Sullivan, all of whom were named to the bench by Mr. Clinton in 1994; and Henry H. Kennedy Jr., appointed by Mr. Clinton in 1997.

In his letter, Mr. Coble challenged the Johnson assignments in the Hubbell and Trie cases and said the subcommittee had "additional information" that would "justify" a new inquiry. He said the new information included Judge Johnson's assignment of the Glicken, Kanchanalak and Jimenez cases, which "again bypassed the random case-assignment system."

"The Judicial Council simply accepted Judge Johnson's justification in support of her action and concluded that in the circumstances presented, a purely conclusionary allegation … is not enough to justify a search for [evidence of misconduct]," he said. "How much evidence would be enough to justify an investigation?"

Mr. Coble's concerns about the case assignments surfaced after two federal appeals court panels reinstated the Hubbell case that Judge Robertson had thrown out and reversed Judge Friedman's ruling in the Trie case, resulting in his guilty plea several days later. Another appeals court panel reinstated charges against Mrs. Kanchanalak of making false statements to the Federal Election Commission about money she contributed to the DNC.

He also said in his letter that "no rationalization can possibly justify" the assignment of the Glicken case to Judge Kennedy, adding there was "nothing complicated or protracted about this case" and Glicken's attorney announced on the day he was charged he would plead guilty.

Glicken was fined $80,000 in 1998 for illegally soliciting a $20,000 foreign contribution in 1993 for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee after presidential friend Vernon E. Jordan asked the judge for leniency in the case. Judge Kennedy ordered the fine in response to Glicken's guilty plea on charges he requested a $20,000 donation from a foreign national.

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