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Obama Asks ABA to Review Judicial Nominees

•  State Bar News     updated  2009/03/19 11:22


Updated: President Obama has asked the American Bar Association to resume reviewing possible judicial nominees before their names are announced.

ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr. announced today in a statement that the association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary will “resume its historical role in evaluating the professional qualifications of potential federal judicial nominees on a pre-nomination basis.”

The Standing Committee’s prescreening role evidently began before today’s announcement. President Obama made his first federal appeals court nomination today, selecting U.S. District Judge David Hamilton for a seat on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Chicago, according to CQ Politics.

The Standing Committee released its unanimous well-qualified rating (PDF) for Hamilton immediately after the announcement, according to Standing Committee chair Kim Askew.

President Bush had ended the association’s early role in nominee screening in 2001, citing a wish to avoid giving the ABA preference over other organizations. The association continued to rate nominees, but it had to wait until after the names were revealed.

“The Standing Committee is prepared to assist the administration and the Senate Judiciary Committee whether it’s post nomination or pre-nomination,” Askew told the ABA Journal. “We are pleased to continue to serve this administration.”

The committee's confidential prescreening can include as many as 60 interviews, the ABA Journal reported in a May 2001 story on the Bush administration decision. The early review "has been seen as a way to help presidents avoid embarrassing surprises after a nominee's name is announced," the story said. "It also has been considered an aid for presidents who need to ward off individual senators seeking political plums for their sometimes less-than-qualified favorites."

The Bush administration acted as critics charged that some of the ABA’s past evaluations were tainted by liberal bias. Some conservatives had pointed to the committee's rating of failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. The committee found Bork “well-qualified,” but four of its 15 members had rated him “unqualified.”

Wells addressed bias concerns in his statement today, saying politics is not a consideration.

“The Standing Committee makes a unique contribution to the process by conducting an extensive peer review of each potential nominee’s integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament,” according to the statement by Wells. “The Standing Committee does not consider a potential nominee’s ideological or political philosophy. Its work is fully insulated from, and completely independent of, all other activities of the ABA, and is not influenced by ABA policies.”

In e-mailed comments to the ABA Journal, Wells said President Obama's transition team contacted the ABA a few weeks after the election to discuss the association's role in screening nominees. ABA officials then discussed the evaluation process in a January meeting with White House counsel Greg Craig.

"The ABA did not 'lobby' for any particular role in the process," Wells said in the e-mail. "We simply explained the peer-review and evaluation service we have provided over the years."

"We believe our peer review of potential nominees for lifetime federal judgeships is a unique and valuable service," Wells added. "Political ideology plays no role. Apparently the Obama administration recognizes the advantages in screening potential nominees before nomination, as have nine previous administrations of both political parties."

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