- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2002

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A Texan with ties to President Bush is taking over the American Bar Association's background checks of federal judicial nominees, an apparent effort by the lawyers' organization to show its reviews are nonpartisan.

Mr. Bush stunned the group last year by ending a 50-year White House tradition of using its members to assess the credentials of candidates for federal judgeships.

ABA leaders told reporters yesterday that the group's review committee has given more top ratings to Mr. Bush's judicial choices than those picked by President Clinton or Mr. Bush's father.

They also introduced the next chairman of the committee, Houston lawyer Carol Dinkins, who headed a Bush conservation task force when Mr. Bush was Texas governor, and was Mr. Bush's appointee on the state parks commission.

Miss Dinkins and incoming ABA President Alfred P. Carlton Jr. shrugged off suggestions that the group is trying to win back a place in the White House.

"I don't know that there's a patching up that needs to take place," Mr. Carlton said, adding, "We're open to talk any time."

The ABA has been accused of being easier on liberal judges, something leaders repeatedly deny.

"We have said for years, until we're blue in the face we don't look at the political background, the ideology," said ABA President Robert Hirshon. "Guess what? Nobody on the extreme right believed us."

Miss Dinkins, who was deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration, echoed Mr. Hirshon, saying, "We don't look at politics and we don't look at ideology." Selected by Mr. Carlton for the committee job, she begins that work next week.

Conservatives, however, have long cited what the ABA's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary did to Judge Robert H. Bork during his 1987 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Four members of the 15-member committee had found the eminent legal scholar and former solicitor-general "not qualified," while one had simply voted "not opposed."

When the White House canceled ties to the association last spring, it pointed to the ABA's advocacy work on policy, including support for abortion and a call for a death penalty moratorium. Instead, Mr. Bush has used conservative groups in his selection process.

Until the Bush reversal, presidents dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower had used the ABA to check out potential nominees' backgrounds privately before a public announcement. The ABA now does checks after names are announced. Their ratings are used by the Democrat-controlled Senate, which handles confirmations. The reports are also given to the White House.

David Carle, a spokesman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said the senator has recommended "a way for the White House to save face on this, not to restore things to the way they were, but to allow the vetting to begin" sooner.

Conservatives hope Mr. Bush won't change his mind.

"If he were to switch back now that a 'friend' chairs the committee, he'd be charged with politicizing the process, and rightly so," said Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the conservative Cato Institute.

The ABA rates candidates as well-qualified, qualified or unqualified. So far, 69 percent of Mr. Bush's nominees have gotten the top rating, compared with 61 percent of Mr. Clinton's and 58 percent of Mr. Bush's father's, said Roscoe Trimmier Jr., a Boston lawyer who headed the ABA committee the past year.

Of the 101 Bush nominees investigated so far, just one was determined unqualified: 35-year-old David Bunning, the son of Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican. The Senate confirmed him in February.

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