WASHINGTON – President Bush proposed a "clean start" to the way judges are treated during the confirmation process, saying judges are often mistreated and judgeships are left empty while the judicial process suffers with massive vacancies.
"We must have an even-handed predictable procedure from the day a vacancy is announced to the day a new judge is sworn in," Bush said in an East Room news event. "This procedure should apply now and in the future, no matter who lives in this House or who controls the Senate. We must return fairness and dignity to the judicial confirmation process."
Bush is upset by the fact that only three of the first 11 nominees he chose for the Court of Appeals in May 2001 have been brought to a vote in the U.S. Senate. Eight are stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.
One of the first 11 named, attorney Miguel Estrada, faced acrimony during a confirmation hearing. A vote has not yet been held, but his prospects are bleak. Another, Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, was voted down in the committee.
Thirty-two nominees have been nominated to the Appeals Courts so far and 14 have been confirmed. The Senate has confirmed 66 District Court justices out of 98 nominated. Seventeen more have been sent to the Senate for a vote that has not taken place yet.
"Whatever the explanation, we clearly have a poisoned and polarized atmosphere in which well-qualified nominees are neither voted up or down. They are just left in limbo," he said.
The president suggested a timetable for the judicial process that would enable a new judge to replace a departing judge on the day that judge leaves the bench.
The plan starts with U.S. Appeals and District Court judges notifying the president of intended retirement dates one year out, if possible.
The proposal, developed with the consultation of White House counsel Al Gonzales, also requires the president to submit a nomination to the Senate within 180 days of receiving the notice of a federal court vacancy. The Senate Judiciary Committee would be asked to schedule a hearing within 90 days of receiving the nominee's names.
"Ninety days is more than enough time for the committee to conduct the necessary research before holding a hearing. That's plenty of time," he said.
Under the plan, the Senate would vote on the nominee no later than 180 days after the nomination is submitted.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in a Friday letter to the president, complained that the White House has chosen to "politicize" the judicial selection process to "create a partisan campaign issue."
Undoubtedly, Bush has raised the issue during stump speeches for Republican candidates across the country in the run-up to Tuesday's elections. Bush has used the Senate record on his nominations to argue for returning the chamber to GOP control.
However, Democrats too have said they will use their power as the majority in the Senate to block judicial nominees they find too conservative. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Judiciary Committee, has admitted that ideology is a key factor in his votes for nominees.
Leahy did not immediately respond to Bush's proposal, but said in the letter to Bush that he would like to work on ways to resolve the impasses.
"Meaningful consultation, ideological balance and a depoliticizing of the judicial nomination process are all matters I remain willing to discuss," Leahy said. "We have accomplished a good deal already. We could accomplish much more working more closely together."
In the meantime, Bush said corporate fraud prosecutions and issues arising out of prosecutions relating to Sept. 11 are critical reasons to have a full court.
"If judicial vacancies go unfulfilled, we will see more crowded dockets and longer delays," Bush said. "The federal courts will be unable to act in a timely manner to protect constitutional rights, to dissolve civil disputes, to enforce criminal laws, environmental laws and the civil rights laws that affect the lives and liberties of every single American."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.