Politics in judge selection criticized

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NEW YORK (AP) | The American Bar Association is calling on the next president and Senate to reduce partisan tensions in federal judicial nominations.

The incoming president of the lawyers’ group, H. Thomas Wells Jr., of Birmingham, Ala., said Sunday that he also is enlisting the help of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to study threats to fair and impartial state courts.

At the federal level, the White House should create a commission of Democrats and Republicans to recommend nominees for federal appeals courts, and the two senators from each state should establish similar panels to evaluate and recommend federal trial judges, the ABA says in a resolution inspired by Mr. Wells.

The proposal is certain to be adopted at the group’s annual meeting in New York.

The bipartisan panels would help “avoid the times when there have been really rancorous debates in the confirmation process,” Mr. Wells told the Associated Press.

Nominations from Florida and other states that now use such commissions, Mr. Wells said, “almost never have bitter confirmation fights.”

Mr. Wells said that by acting ahead of this year’s election, the ABA - often criticized by Republicans for tilting toward the Democrats - will avoid being seen as favoring one party.

He said he plans to write to the presumptive presidential nominees - Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama - and to members of the Senate to urge them to adopt the commission approach.

In recent years, individual senators in both parties have blocked judicial nominees from a vote by the full Senate. Democrats filibustered several of President Bush’s nominees when they controlled the Senate during his first term.

Mr. Bush also has failed to consult senators on some of his choices. In one instance, his nominee for an appeals court slot from Virginia was not among the recommendations of the state’s senators, Republican John W. Warner and Democrat Jim Webb.

The nomination has since been withdrawn, and Mr. Bush has nominated two other Virginians to fill vacancies on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who were among those recommended by the senators. One, former state Supreme Court Justice G. Steven Agee, was unanimously confirmed. The nomination of U.S. District Court Judge Glen Conrad is pending.

At the state level, Mr. Wells said his concern was sparked by recent expensive, and in some cases ugly, campaigns and some state legislatures’ refusal to provide enough money for state courts.

Mrs. O’Connor has spoken out frequently in defense of judicial independence and said judges who must run in partisan elections risk being compromised by the growing amount of campaign cash they must raise.

She will head a May 2009 summit in Charlotte, N.C., that will explore these issues, Mr. Wells said.

In April, a little-known county judge narrowly defeated a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice with a law-and-order message and a barrage of third-party ads in a race that will go down as one of the state’s nastiest.

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