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Nominees deserve hearing


JUDGE Francis D. Murnaghan Jr.'s Aug. 31 death made a bad situation worse for the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

The bench has been understaffed for years because Republican senators refuse to approve Democratic nominees to fill vacancies created by retirement or death. Judge Murnaghan's death means a full one-third of the chairs on the 15-member court are now empty.

It's beyond ridiculous.

There are now 10 judges doing the work of 15 -- a judicial nightmare by any standards.

But Republicans like it that way, because the Fourth Circuit, which hears cases from the federal courts in Maryland as well as four other states, can be counted on to hand down some of the most conservative opinions in our nation. They rubber-stamp death penalty cases that present myriad ethical and legal problems. They seemingly slap down any racial discrimination case that doesn't involve a hanging.

The justices have taken the term "activist judiciary" to an extreme. Even the U.S. Supreme Court throttled the Fourth Circuit's attempts to make law from the bench in its most recent term.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, defended his party's record on judicial confirmations last week in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece. He bragged that the national federal judicial vacancy rate is just 7 percent.

But surely Mr. Hatch knows that the vacancy rate on the Fourth Circuit is nearly five times that. And surely he knows that three of President Clinton's nominees to the Fourth Circuit have run into the Republican Senate's stone wall.

Even now, Roger L. Gregory -- who would become the first African-American on the court -- has "little chance of being confirmed," Senator Hatch says.

Great. Politics trumps juris- prudence again.

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