President Bush’s judicial nominees are refusing to answer an additional background question that Democrats tacked onto a Senate panel’s standard questionnaire.
Republicans say the question covering criminal arrest or conviction is already covered in the FBI’s background check and could bog down the nominees in paperwork and stall the process.
“I’m concerned it could result in delaying nominees. And whenever you have a disagreement, then it’s an excuse to stop,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and Judiciary Committee member.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and committee chairman, added the question last month to streamline the background-check process, his spokeswoman said.
“What is causing the controversy, so to speak, is a question about prior arrests and is in the public part of the questionnaire,” said Mimi Devlin, Judiciary Committee spokeswoman.
Miss Devlin said the question is not as “intrusive” as similar questions asked of nominees in other committees, and that the panel is moving the nomination process forward despite the refusals to answer.
“It’s public information anyway. It just makes the process much more simple. It’s much ado about nothing,” Miss Devlin said.
The 14 nominees were each asked to “please state whether you have ever been arrested for, charged with or convicted of a crime, within 20 years of your nomination, other than a minor traffic violation, that is reflected in a record available to the public. If your answer is ‘yes,’ please provide the relevant dates of arrest, charge and disposition and then describe the particulars of the offense.”
Charles W. Pickering Sr., a nominee to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, was the first to give the standard answer Democrats say was issued from the White House.
“I am informed that the background investigation reports on nominees prepared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation routinely address the type of information called for by this question. Without waiving the confidentiality of the FBI background investigation report prepared on me, I respectfully direct your attention to that report for response to this question,” Mr. Pickering said.
Mr. Sessions said the standard response is a “perfectly good answer” and that senators already can review the FBI report, but staff cannot.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said the issue is privacy.
Added Mr. Sessions: “This is a dangerous policy. Right now, these things are confidential. They’ve always been confidential. And if somebody leaks an FBI report, it can be a criminal offense. “To put it out to all staff, it has every opportunity to leak, will leak, and we don’t know why they want to change it,” he said.
Previously, if a background check turned up an arrest, the nominee could quietly step down and his privacy would be protected.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said the decision to include an additional question is normally agreed upon by both sides and not “simply a unilateral decision.”
“There is a sense this is meant to embarrass rather than to enlighten, because we have the information otherwise,” Mr. Kyl said.