Too slow on judicial nominees


President Clinton has nominated candidates for the three vacancies on the U.S District Court for the District of Maryland. Good. It's about time.

The court has been seriously understaffed due to retirements. Those three vacancies represent 30 percent of the federal bench in the state. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which hears appeals from Maryland, is also understaffed. It has 15 authorized judgeships -- and three vacancies, or 20 percent. Overall, the federal district courts and courts of appeals are operating at about 85 percent strength. This creates a workload problem and a justice-delayed problem.

And something else. The federal judiciary has been Republican-ized over the past generation. For 20 of the 24 years preceding 1993, Republican presidents picked the judges. Two-thirds of the present federal trial and appellate judges were appointed by Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and many Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford judges remain. All, especially President Reagan, paid close attention to the partisan and philosophical orientation of their nominees. Bill Clinton promised to tilt the judiciary back the other way. Why he hasn't moved faster is a mystery and a great disappointment to all who feel the judiciary is now lopsided.

Aides to Mr. Clinton say this pace is typical when a president of one party replaces a president of another. But the last time that happened, Ronald Reagan nominated 20 judges as of October 1 of his first year in office. Mr. Clinton has nominated only 14. Even this understates the present slowness. Those 20 Reagan nominees represented about 40 percent of the vacancies at the time. The 13 Clinton nominees represent about 10 percent of current vacancies.

After 12 years in the wilderness, Democratic lawyers, state judges and other public officials who want to be federal judges are eager to begin the re-balancing act that goes on, as it should, after a partisan change in administration. It is an important part of a president's job. Judges stay on the bench long after their president has gone.

Bill Clinton promised a judiciary that reflects the diversity of the nation. Jimmy Carter made a start on that, appointing much larger percentages of minority and women judges than previously. Presidents Bush and Reagan reversed that trend, increasing the already extremely high percentage of white male judges. The Ruth Bader Ginsburg nomination to the Supreme Court was a gesture to the Clinton constituency, but for a real impact the president has to carry that over into the rest of the federal bench. Almost all federal cases are decided by trial and courts of appeals judges, not by Supreme Court justices.

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