WASHINGTON -- In the first of a series of major election-year addresses, Sen. Bob Dole staged an attack yesterday on one of the pillars of the legal establishment, the American Bar Association, demanding that it be removed from its traditional role in evaluating federal judicial nominees.
The carefully calibrated criticism was the opening volley in a coordinated, party-wide effort by Mr. Dole and the Republicans to take back the crime issue from Mr. Clinton, who has succeeded, as few Democrats have in recent years, in seizing the political high ground in that area.
Speaking to a convention of newspaper editors, Mr. Dole accused President Clinton of having consistently chosen "an all-star team of liberal leniency" for the federal bench. He promised to make that an issue in the campaign, even though, as the White House was quick to point out, Mr. Dole has voted in the Senate against only three of 185 Clinton judicial nominees.
Some conservatives have been critical of Mr. Dole and the Republican Congress for not taking a harder line against Mr. Clinton's choices for judgeships. Mr. Dole said yesterday that he did not oppose them "out of deference to a president's constitutional prerogative."
Yesterday's speech was the opening volley in a months-long effort to draw clear distinctions between Mr. Dole and the president on fundamental values, Dole aides said. They also hinted that he might try to capitalize in the campaign on the unpopularity of lawyers, even though both Mr. Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, like Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, are lawyers.
"It appears that Clinton has become a guardian of this lawyer-driven culture that we live in," said a senior Dole campaign official, who briefed reporters on the condition that he not be identified. Mr. Clinton has sided with the legal establishment -- and against conservative Republicans -- on some contentious issues, including securities-law reform and attempts to limit damage awards in product-liability lawsuits.
Over the past three years, the president has been unusually successful in taking the lead on the crime issue with a series of high-profile initiatives, including billions of dollars for prison construction and putting tens of thousands of police officers on the nation's streets.
"President Clinton may talk the same language as I do on many of these issues," Mr. Dole said. "But as, I'm sorry to say, with so many things, his actions profoundly depart from the meaning of his words."
In some ways, Mr. Dole's remarks on judges echoed his attack last year on Hollywood, which he criticized for glamorizing violence and contributing to social decay. Yesterday, he blamed liberal judges for creating a crisis of confidence in the legal system, calling it one of the "root causes of the crime explosion" in America.
And in much the same way that he singled out movie studios or record companies by name, he took on one of the leading institutions in the legal world, referring scornfully to the bar association.
If elected, Mr. Dole said, he would seek advice on judicial appointments from a selection panel made up of police, prosecutors, crime victims, legal scholars and representatives of other legal and professional organizations. "In my administration," vowed the likely Republican presidential nominee, the ABA "will no longer have a retainer at the White House and the trial lawyers will not be calling all the shots."
For decades, the ABA has rated the picks of both Democratic and Republican presidents for the Supreme Court and other federal judgeships. But Mr. Dole charged that the ABA, the nation's largest professional association for lawyers, has become nothing more than another blatantly partisan liberal advocacy group" and waved a copy of the ABA's lobby registration form to dramatize his point.
In the current Congress, the ABA has actively opposed a number of conservative initiatives, including efforts to roll back affirmative action, a constitutional amendment against flag desecration, mandatory minimum sentences and officially sanctioned prayer in public schools.
Rebuffing Mr. Dole's criticism, ABA President Roberta Cooper Ramo said in a telephone interview that the formal positions taken by the bar association on legislative matters have "nothing whatever to do" with the organization's work in evaluating judicial nominees.
Even if Mr. Dole is elected, she added, "we would not stop reviewing nominees."
It was Mr. Dole's personal hero, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who began the practice of asking the ABA to screen potential judicial nominees. Though the bar association's role is merely advisory -- presidents, including Mr. Clinton, have occasionally gone ahead with nominees who drew unqualified ratings -- its assessment has effectively become a seal of approval and an influential part of the process by which the Senate confirms a president's choice.
Dole strategists cited his assault on the ABA as evidence that he would go further than previous Republicans in shaking up the established order in Washington.
Mr. Dole first outlined his concern about the ABA in a letter last November to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, which he concluded that "the ABA has compromised the reputation for nonpartisanship it once enjoyed."
Mr. Hatch, whose fight against the ABA dates back to the 1980s and the bitter fight over President Ronald Reagan's unsuccessful nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, issued a statement yesterday amplifying Mr. Dole's remarks. But the Utah Republican stopped short of saying that the ABA should be removed from the judicial selection process.
Pub Date: 4/20/96