ATTORNEY general confident ABA will rate Bush judicial nominees highly

Wednesday, August 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ Attorney General John Ashcroft said he is confident the American Bar Association will apply the same standards to its reviews of Bush administration nominees as it did when vetting Clinton nominees, and rate the Bush judges highly.

``I am heartened by the ABA's ratings thus far, and am confident that, judged by the same standards used to rate the last administration, the vast majority of President Bush's nominees will continue to receive'' the ABA's highest ``well-qualified'' rating for judges, Ashcroft said Tuesday.

So far, the ABA has reviewed 17 of Bush's initial 44 choices for federal trial and appeals courts and found all either qualified or well-qualified.

Those reviews were done after the nominees' names were public, instead of beforehand as was done during the Democratic Clinton administration and for eight administrations before that.

Ashcroft addressed the first gathering of the American Bar Association since the Bush administration ended the 50-year policy of using the lawyer group to do behind-the-scenes investigations on White House choices for the federal bench.

Ashcroft did not discuss the White House decision, but did allude to a conservative suspicion that the ABA has a liberal bias and treats Republican judicial nominees more harshly.

``As you may know, there are some who have called into doubt the impartiality of the ABA's judicial ratings,'' Ashcroft said.

He cited a recent study by Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren, which claimed that the ABA was as much as 10 times more likely to give its highest ratings to Clinton administration choices than to nominees of President Bush's father.

``Professor Lindgren attributes this disparity to a political bias in favor of liberal judges,'' Ashcroft said, without offering his own view. ``Undoubtedly, there are others who argue that no such bias exists. In any event, I think we can agree that no political bias should exist.''

The Bush White House did not cite politics or ideology in booting the ABA in March, saying no outside group should have special control over a president's picks for lifetime judicial posts.

Ashcroft also used the speech to urge the Senate to speed up confirmation of judicial nominees. He noted that only one of 11 judges nominated to the U.S. circuit court this year has had a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

``I know I don't need to tell you that judicial nominees mean delays in the time it takes to have one's case heard,'' Ashcroft said. ``Justice delayed is justice denied.''

Democrats have vowed to block any nominees seen as too extreme and point out that Republicans routinely blocked nominations when they controlled the Senate.

The ABA's weeklong annual meeting, which ends Wednesday, was dominated by discussion of a proposed overhaul to the 400,000-lawyer group's code of ethics.

The overhaul effort faltered Tuesday, as opponents argued to the ABA's governing body that it risked violating the trust between lawyers and clients.

Facing likely defeat in the ABA's policy-making House of Delegates, lawyers who backed the proposed changes withdrew the most contentious issue. The proposed change would have given lawyers more latitude to report wrongdoing by their clients, including fraudulent business deals and financial crimes.

The ABA was not expected to cast a final vote on the ethics rules until next year, but Tuesday's unexpectedly swift and decisive votes against key provisions may mean there is little left to fight about.

The ABA defeated another contested change that would have eliminated the veto power a client now holds over lawyers who want to switch sides in the middle of a dispute. The change would have allowed lawyers to join an opposing firm so long as the lawyer had nothing further to do with the case.

The delegates did back a proposed prohibition on lawyers having sex with their clients. Until now, lawyers and dentists were the only major professions without a strong policy against the practice, said Boston University law professor Nancy Moore, also a member of the panel that drew up the proposed changes.

The ABA's ethics recommendations are not law, but are used to write state laws governing lawyers.