Verne Strickland Blogmaster / November 24, 2011
New York Times
Published Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011WASHINGTON – The American Bar Association has secretly declared a significant number of President Barack Obama's potential judicial nominees "not qualified," slowing White House efforts to fill vacant judgeships – and nearly all of the prospects given poor ratings were women or members of an ethnic minority group, according to interviews.
The White House has chosen not to nominate any person the bar association deemed unqualified, so the negative ratings have not been made public. But the association's judicial vetting committee has opposed 14 of the roughly 185 potential nominees the administration asked it to evaluate, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The number of Obama prospects deemed "not qualified" already exceeds the total number opposed by the group during the eight-year administrations of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush; the rejection rate is more than 3 1/2 times as high as it was under either of the previous two presidencies, documents and interviews show.
That outcome has added a twist to a long-running friction in the politics of judicial nominations. During recent Republican administrations, conservatives have made political hay of accusing the ABA of bias against conservative potential judges.In 2001, Bush stopped sending the group names of prospects before he selected them, so the panel instead rated them after their nomination. In 2009, Obama restored the panel's role in the pre-nomination selection process, which dates to the Eisenhower administration.
In discussions with bar panel leaders, administration officials have expressed growing frustrations with the ratings over the past year and a half, people familiar with those conversations said. In particular, they are said to have questioned whether the panelists – many of whom are litigators – place too much value on courtroom experience at the expense of lawyers who pursued career paths less likely to involve trials, like government lawyers and law professors.
In response to questions about the ratings, Obama's White House counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, said in a statement that the administration "continues to have a strong working relationship with the A.B.A."
But she also acknowledged disagreements with some of its ratings.
"Although we may not agree with all of their ratings," Ruemmler said, "we respect and value their historical role in evaluating judicial candidates. The president remains committed to addressing the judicial vacancy crisis with urgency and with qualified candidates who bring a diverse range of experience to the bench."
The chairman since August of the bar association's vetting committee, Allan J. Joseph, would not confirm any negative ratings but defended the panel's work as fair-minded and independent. Its members, he said, are all volunteers who, as a matter of public service, put in long hours reading candidates' writings and conducting confidential interviews about them with dozens of judges and lawyers.
"We are not a rubber stamp," he said. "Our role is to provide the only peer review in the whole process, and we think that is valuable – particularly with a lifetime appointment under consideration."
Obama has made it a policy goal to diversify the bench in terms of race, gender and life experiences, and the judges he has appointed have been more likely to be women or minorities than any previous president.
Of the 14 people opposed by the panel, a person familiar with the ratings said, nine are women – five of whom are white, two black and two Latino. Of the five men, one is white, two are black and two are Latino.