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White House Messing with a Good Thing

November 15th, 2006

Seattle Times had a headline running on the front page today reading “Political motives suspected as jobs on bench go unfilled.” I first thought… oh no, the Democrats are going to go through with their threats of blocking every Bush judicial appointee until after 2008 when we can get someone blue into the White House. And then I actually read the article. Turns out Democrats aren’t the problem.

For better or worse, when it comes to District Court appointments (as opposed to Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court), the Senators from the state in which the District Court resides are king. If the nominee is rejected by one of the Senators the appointment is not confirmed. Of course, that gets tricky when the state elects two Senators from different parties as Washington did during much of the 1990s (Sen. Murray (D) and Sen. Gorton (R)). To resolve this problem the two Senators, with the involvement of the Clinton White House, developed a non-political merit process for reviewing and recommending names to the White House for nomination. An ingenious system that, using local lawyers and judges to select the best federal judges for appointment.

For those who don’t know, a District Judge is about the least political kind of judge in the Federal Court system. They do not decide law in the way you hear about activist judges doing… that authority is the province of the Appeals Judge. No, the District Judge is a singular entity, usually presiding in court alone, and holds tremendous power of the litigants in an individual case, but that authority does not extend beyond the courtroom. While that may insulate them from the political aspect, it does raise the spector of judicial bribery. Of course, we have a Federal Judiciary, in part, to reduce that possibility, so it’s great that Washington uses this open, non-partisan process to select new Federal Judges.

Well, it turns out that doesn’t work for the Bush White House. Recommended names have been either rejected or simply ignored. Apparently the White House feels they are better situated to know what is best for the Western District of Washington than, say, the people whose lives (and livelihoods) actually depend on the court’s decisions. Hopefully Murray and Cantwell stand up for the process and refuse any nominee not endorsed by the merit review process.

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