- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2001

With America's homeland enduring the deadliest terrorist attacks in our history, every law enforcement weapon and tool at our disposal needs to be fully operational and running at peak performance.

Yet, incredibly, there is a gaping hole in the government's judicial defenses the heart of the nation's law enforcement army because of persistent and deliberate delays by the Senate Judiciary Committee to fill dozens of vacancies in our court system.

The courts are being inundated with law enforcement requests and cases. There are not enough judges to handle them all quickly. The dire result: dangerous backlogs and delays that prevent the swift and sure delivery of decisions needed to protect all of us from the threats that now loom over our country.

Right now, there are at least 108 vacancies in our federal courts, including 30 posts that have been vacant for so long that federal judicial officials have classified them as "judicial emergencies."

With our law-enforcement agencies needing rapid-fire responses from the courts for a broad range of court-approved surveillance actions and other legal requests in their war on the murderous terrorists in our midst, this is no time for our court system to be operating at half-speed.

"We need federal judges monitoring and helping to support the anti-terrorism efforts and law-enforcement requests from the various agencies of government," Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi told me.

"The Senate is at its lowest confirmation rate of federal judges in recent history, and we need to pick up the pace immediately," he said.

The man most responsible for this state of affairs is Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a deeply partisan Vermont Democrat who Republicans say has been working overtime to hold up or at least slow down President Bush's judicial nominations.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the committee's ranking Republican, has been complaining about the lack of action by Mr. Leahy ever since Democrats took control of the Senate last July, when hearings on Mr. Bush's nominees virtually ground to a halt. At present, there are 52 judicial nominees who are trapped in Leahy limbo, 46 of whom have had no hearings.

Many of them have been fully approved by the American Bar Association, but not by Mr. Leahy and the Democratic members on his committee.

At the heart of the judicial dispute, as always, is ideology. After eight years of liberal appointments to the courts under the Clinton administration, Mr. Leahy and friends recoil at the prospect of eight years of more conservative judges who aren't as likely to let criminals go free on legal technicalities.

Hatch, Lott and other Republican senators have been complaining for months about the delays in the confirmation process, but without success. But then, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the complaints began pouring out of the White House, the Justice Department and elsewhere in law enforcement and in intelligence circles.

That's when the backroom political struggle broke into open warfare on the Senate floor.

Declaring that they were ready "to play hardball" to get action on the judgeship nominees, Republicans blocked action last week on the foreign aid bill and said that it and other bills would not move until Mr. Leahy lifted his judicial blockade. Notably, Republican leaders said that the White House was fully behind their move.

But the battle really exploded into all-out warfare when Mr. Hatch told his colleagues at last Tuesday's closed Republican policy luncheon that Mr. Leahy had told him that any senator who voted to block the aid bill "would not get the federal judges from their state confirmed."

Enraged, Republican senators, including many who work with Mr. Leahy on the committee, rose at the meeting to excoriate the Vermonter, attacking him as a "vindictive partisan" bent on blocking President George W. Bush "anyway he can," according to my sources.

Mr. Leahy denied that he threatened retribution against Republican senators, but that is not the way Mr. Hatch tells it. "If anything, he [Mr. Leahy] was threatening. I've heard payback talk," Mr. Hatch said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota weakly argues that judicial confirmations are moving at roughly the same pace under the Democrats as they did under Republican rule. In fact, Republicans moved 88 percent of Mr. Clinton's nominees in his first year in office, compared with a snail-paced 13 percent approval rate thus far in Mr. Bush's first year.

But finger pointing and comparisons to past senatorial records is irrelevant in the dangerous life-and-death struggle in which our country is now engaged.

This is a time when the United States needs all of its law enforcement resources fully staffed and working together against an elusive and deadly enemy that threatens our way of life.

It is certainly not a time for petty, left-leaning judicial politics, nor the usual time-consuming procedures. Mr. Leahy and Mr. Daschle need to get with the program and approve these nominees as soon as possible.

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