THE JUDICIARY : Clinton’s Big Bench: Judges of All Stripes and Colors Appointed : Blacks, Latinos, women, even Republicans fill federal vacancies. It is the most diverse group named by any President.
They are a Baltimore prosecutor whose husband was appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Reagan, a renowned civil rights lawyer here who is legally blind, a veteran prosecutor who became the highest ranking African American in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, a Latino activist in Chicago who worked as a U.S. attorney and a Vermont Republican who was first chosen for the bench by George Bush.
The five are among 129 new judges that President Clinton has appointed to the federal courts during his first two years. The Clinton judges make up the most diverse group of presidential appointments ever. Women and minorities account for 58% of the total. African Americans are nearly one-fourth. Nine percent are Latino.
But the range of backgrounds does not stop there. A few are Republicans. One is outspoken against abortion. Most have practical experience as prosecutors, state judges or corporate attorneys--or in some instances, all of the above.
And best of all, say academic experts who track the judiciary, the Clinton Administration has not sacrificed quality for diversity.
“These are highly qualified appointees, better on average than those of Reagan, Bush or (Jimmy) Carter,” said Sheldon Goldman, a University of Massachusetts political scientist who monitors selection of judges.
He cites as evidence the American Bar Assn.'s evaluation of judicial nominees. A committee of ABA lawyers investigates all court nominees, analyzes the breadth of their legal experience and interviews dozens of people who know the candidate. At the end, each nominee is rated well-qualified, qualified or not-qualified.
In the latest tally, 65% of Clinton’s appointees have earned a well-qualified rating, compared with 59% for Bush, 55% for Reagan and 56% for Carter.
Last year, the Clinton team got bad marks even from liberal groups for its slow pace in filling the record number of vacancies in the three-tiered federal court system. Only a Supreme Court vacancy got the President’s quick attention.
But in its second year, the Administration picked up speed and is now winning rave reviews from the Alliance of Justice, a coalition of liberal groups that monitors the judiciary. Last month, director Nan Aron praised Clinton “for fulfilling his campaign promise to appoint only men and women of unquestioned intellect, judicial temperament, broad experience and a demonstrated concern for the individual rights protected by our Constitution.”
Not surprisingly, her conservative counterpart, Tom Jipping at the Free Congress Foundation, is not so enamored of the new judges.
“I think there are many liberal judicial activists in that group, and they have been rubber-stamped by the Senate,” Jipping said.
So far, however, only two Clinton court nominees have been tagged as liberal ideologues and challenged by Senate Republicans: Rosemary Barkett of Florida and H. Lee Sarokin of New Jersey. Both eventually won confirmation.
While Clinton has succeeded now in filling most of the judicial vacancies, he has by no means reshaped the federal judiciary. His appointees fill only 15% of the 837 federal judgeships, and many of them replaced retiring Democrats from the Carter era. Republican appointees still hold a majority in all 12 federal circuit courts of appeal.
In the huge U.S. 9th Circuit Court, which covers California and eight other Western states, Clinton has added only one judge among 26: Michael Hawkins of Arizona, a former U.S. attorney.
But if the Clinton nominees have not reshaped the law, they have surely begun to change the appearance of the judiciary.
“At our new judges conference (in Denver), it was wonderful to look around the room and see a group that looked so like the country,” said U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins of Los Angeles.
For 16 years, she worked in the district attorney’s office in Los Angeles in jobs that ranged from conducting preliminary hearings and prosecuting consumer fraud cases to serving as a top administrator in the downtown office.
In May, she took her seat as a U.S. district judge, the fourth African American to hold a federal judgeship in Los Angeles. She was joined by Judge Richard Paez, a former municipal judge and the first Mexican American to serve on the federal district court in Los Angeles.
In Chicago, Ruben Castillo has been an assistant U.S. attorney, a litigator for a prominent law firm and the regional director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Now, at age 40, he is the first Latino on the federal bench in Illinois. But he credits his appointment to his broad legal experience, not just his family heritage.
In Washington, David S. Tatel has won admirers over the years for his work as a civil rights lawyer and advocate for poor children. From 1977 to 1979, he directed the civil rights office in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Said former Education Secretary Shirley Hufstedler, now a prominent Los Angeles lawyer: “I would be hard-pressed to find another advocate who had done more for the education of minority children than David.”
But many who know Tatel only by reputation do not realize he has been blind for more than 20 years, having lost his sight to retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease. He climbs mountains, skis in Colorado and has completed marathons in New York and Washington.
Although no mention was made of his impairment in the White House announcement, Clinton made Tatel the first blind person to be a federal appellate judge when he named him to the influential U.S. court of appeals for the District of Columbia.
In 1990, Fred Parker was a prominent Republican lawyer and former state deputy attorney general in Vermont when Bush made him a federal district judge. On the bench, he won high marks for competence and fairness.
And this year, when Clinton had a Vermont seat to fill on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, he chose the person who came most highly recommended: Fred Parker. The new judge plans to keep his chambers in Burlington, but now he will begin commuting a few days a month to Manhattan to hear arguments.
Diana Gribbon Motz of Baltimore and her husband are believed to be the first married couple to sit on the federal bench.
“Yes, it’s true: He’s a Republican,” she said. “It’s his only flaw.”
Reagan put John F. Motz on the federal bench in 1985, but his wife had also won high marks during her 25-year career as a private litigator, state prosecutor and state appeals court judge.
In perhaps her most celebrated case as a Maryland assistant attorney general, she won a $268,000 judgment against former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew to recover money he took as bribes during his term as the state’s governor.
Late last year, she said, she received a call from then-White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum to talk about the vacant seat on the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I said, ‘Bernie, you must have the wrong Motz,” she recalled. “ ‘My husband is the best-qualified person to move up to the 4th Circuit.’ He laughed and said, ‘We know your husband, and he has a fine record, but George Bush should have elevated him.’ ”
Now, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz sits on the appeals court based in Richmond, Va., with the power to review rulings of federal district judges in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
The President’s Picks
President Clinton’s appointments to the federal bench have been the most diverse group in history.
Confirmed Clinton Appointments
Supreme Court: 2
Native Am.: 1
Clinton Bush Reagan Carter Nominations 143 80 84 56 Male 99 72 80 50 Female 44 8 4 6 White 98 76 81 46 Black 31 2 1 9 Latino 12 2 1 1 Other 2 0 1 0
Nominees Rated Well-Qualified by ABA
Sources: White House, American Bar Assn.