WASHINGTON -- One of the biggest political plums the nation's voters handed to President Clinton -- the chance to give scores of men and women high-prestige jobs as federal judges -- is still waiting to be harvested.
Eight months into his presidency, Mr. Clinton has chosen 14 women and men for judgeships: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 13 lower court judges. The Senate has approved Judge Ginsburg and will start reviewing the others within the next few weeks.
But, at this point, 120 other seats still have no nominees; many of them have not been occupied by a judge since Congress created them as new seats nearly three years ago; a few judgeships have been empty for nearly four years, and one for almost five.
Justice Ginsburg's seat on the Court of Appeals here is now open, and so is the seat on that same court once held by Justice Clarence Thomas. The Thomas Circuit Court seat has been empty for one month short of two years.
The Clinton administration has treated Maryland the best of any state where more than one empty federal court seat existed. Last month, the president nominated U.S. Magistrate Deborah K. Chasanow, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Peter J. Messitte and Prince George's County State's Attorney Alex Williams Jr. to fill all three vacancies on Maryland's U.S. District Court.
No dates have been set yet for Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on those or any of the other 10 selected last month.
The Maryland selections -- a white woman, a white man and a black man -- reflect a primary aim of the Clinton administration: "diversity" in nominations. In all, counting Justice Ginsburg, the president so far has chosen nine women, five men, one black person and one Hispanic person for the federal bench.
The White House has displayed some sensitivity about the pace of the selection process, stressing the fact that Mr. Clinton picked more nominees in the same time period of his presidency than President Ronald Reagan did (14, compared with 10).
Mr. Reagan finished his first year, however, with 41, and Mr. Clinton will have to pick up the pace to equal that. There remains some anticipation by groups that monitor judicial appointments that Mr. Clinton may yet come close to the Reagan mark by year's end.
Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Acheson has told the Senate, "We promise to move as expeditiously as we can." Before Mr. Clinton sent the Senate his first list of nominees in early August, Ms. Acheson was told by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, that his criticism of past administrations for acting too slowly applied to Mr. Clinton's government, too. "This administration has equally bad a record," he complained early in the summer. "We have got to get it moving."
After 12 years of Republican control of the White House and judicial nominations, Democrats in Congress such as Mr. Biden are anxious for the president to start the years-long process of remaking the judiciary to suit Democratic tastes. It is now dominated by judges chosen by Presidents Reagan and George Bush: Mr. Reagan appointed 385, Mr. Bush 195.
Senator Biden, even while pressuring Mr. Clinton publicly to "get moving," also has told the Justice Department that the worst thing that could happen would be for the president to dump a huge batch of judicial nominees on the Senate all at once, rather than send up a few at a time in a continuous process that the Senate could handle efficiently.
One of the reasons that Mr. Clinton's pace on court appointments has seemed slow, according to George Kassouf, who monitors judicial selection for the liberal Alliance for Justice, is that "everyone wanted it to go faster at the beginning." A shift of the political party in power created great expectations, and Mr. Clinton seemed bent on acting speedily on a number of other fronts.
But, early problems in getting an attorney general chosen slowed down the process, according to Mr. Kassouf. Then, he added, the March announcement by Justice Byron R. White that would retire "refocused the energies." The result of both was "unfortunate delay."
Democrats apparently have lost no time in submitting potential nominees' names to the Justice Department for the initial screening; more than 50 names are under review there now. That, however, is only the start of the process. Every nominee who clears a review by the Justice Department (including a close background check by the FBI) must get the approval of the White House legal staff, and then of the president himself.
The White House has let senators know that it will not hurry in the selection process, partly because it fears it may miss something that could turn up later and make trouble in the Senate. The White House counsel's office has been buffeted since the beginning of Mr. Clinton's term with setbacks on nominees initially screened by that office.
Although administration emissaries to Congress have said that Mr. Clinton is willing to select District Court judges picked initially by Democratic lawmakers, he will make no advance commitments on federal Circuit Court of Appeals judges.
The White House staff of Counsel Bernard Nussbaum is expected to be the most influential in suggesting final nominees for the Circuit Courts. The key figure on that staff for nominations is Ronald Klain, former Judiciary Committee aide and one-time law clerk to retired Justice White.
So far, the president has picked three nominees for the Circuit Courts and 10 for the District Court.
As he entered office, Mr. Clinton was faced with about 120 empty federal judicial seats; by late summer, the number had risen to 133; it shortly will rise by three more. The 133 total includes 78 seats that have been vacant 18 months or more -- long enough that the federal court system labels them "emergency" vacancies.
When Mr. Clinton started making his nominations on Aug. 6, he chose nine judges to fill "emergency" openings on the District Courts (all three in Maryland were in that category), and four for seats not on the "emergency" list.
Although liberal activist groups are pressuring the White House to name judges with known or predictable liberal inclinations, White House aides have responded, in private, that potential nominees will have not to pass that kind of "litmus test." The
result is likely to be more moderate nominees -- like Justice Ginsburg.
THE OPEN COURT SEATS
FEDERAL COURTS.. .. .. ..VACANCIES.. .. .. ..CLINTON'S
.. .. .. .. .. .. ..(as of Sept.1).. .. .NOMINATIONS
Supreme Court.. .. .. .. .none.. .. .. .. .. .1 (Approved)
Courts of Appeals.. .. .. .21.. .. .. .. .. ..3 (Pending)
Districts Courts.. .. .. .110.. .. .. .. .. .10 (Pending)
International Trade Court...2.. .. .. .. .. ...none