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White House ends ABA's role in screening judicial nominees


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush White House Thursday formally ended the American Bar Association's role as an early arbiter of the qualifications for nominees to the federal bench and the Supreme Court.

White House Counsel Al Gonzales notified Martha Barnett, the president of the American Bar Association, as well as the senior Republican and Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) by phone and by letter, according to Scott McClellan, White House Deputy Press Secretary. Gonzales also left word for Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York).


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"The decision was based on the principle that the American Bar Association should not receive a preferential role over all other interested parties," said McClellan. "We welcome their input and they will continue to have an important role in the process."

The president made the decision Wednesday following a meeting with Gonzales, who met with the American Bar Association Monday to discuss its role screening federal judicial candidates.

In its letter to the American Bar Association, Gonzales said the ABA voice on nominees should not be "heard before and above all others" and that the historic arrangement with previous administrations was "preferential" and neither "appropriate or fair."

"As Senator Biden asked in 1994, 'Why the ABA and not the National Bar Association?," wrote Gonzales. "The same question could be asked with respect to numerous other groups."

The ABA had for 50 years worked as a pre-screening forum for Republican and Democratic administrations, receiving word of potential nominees before any candidates were announced. The ABA's vetting process rated the relative qualifications of nominees to the federal bench and the Supreme Court.

McClellan said the move will not affect timely considerations of nominees since the American Bar Association has regularly said it could review candidates' qualifications in 20 to 30 days.

The Bush White House pointed to examples in the past in which the American Bar Association did not screen federal judicial candidates.

An administration official, who did not want to be identified, said that the past three presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, declined to submit the names of Supreme Court nominees to the American Bar Association standing committee until after the nominees were publicly announced.

The Senate Republican leadership sent a letter to President Bush Thursday "to congratulate" him on ending "the special and underserved role" of the ABA in selecting judges.

"While the ABA has been and remains an important organization devoted to improving the quality of legal practice in this country, its decision to increase its focus on politics has undermined its ability to provide an objective review of judicial nominations and justifies your decision," the letter read.

The official also said Griffin Bell, Attorney General in the Carter Administration, said in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believed the bar group should be eliminated from the judicial selection process.

Conservatives have accused the bar association of having a liberal bias, and grew especially angry with the group after it gave a mixed review to Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. Bork was not confirmed by the Senate.

The Bush administration said it welcomed the bar association to play the same role as other groups once a nominee is announced.

"The administration fully welcomes the ABA, like other interested parties, to provide suggestions regarding potential judges," wrote Gonzales. "Once the president submits a nomination to the Senate, the ABA like every other interested party is free to evaluate and express its views concerning the president's nominee."

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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