WASHINGTON – The American Bar Association downgraded its rating of President Bush's appellate court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, after new interviews raised concerns about his courtroom experience and open-mindedness, the chairman of the peer-review panel said Monday.
The 14-member committee changed the White House aide's rating from "well-qualified" to "qualified" last month in part because six members of the panel downgraded their rating from the last time Kavanaugh was reviewed, panel chairman Steven Tober said.
Nonetheless, Tober wrote in a statement Monday to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kavanaugh is "indeed qualified to serve on the federal bench."
"This nominee enjoys a solid reputation for integrity, intellectual capacity and writing and analytical ability," Tober wrote. "The concern has been and remains focused on the breadth of his professional experience."
In the statement, Tober said new interviews conducted since the ABA's previous rating of Kavanaugh in 2005 raised "additional concern over whether this nominee is so insulated that he will be unable to judge fairly in the future."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Kavanaugh still is a good pick for the post.
"In 42 votes cast in the three ABA reviews, all 42 found Mr. Kavanaugh to be qualified or well qualified to serve on the DC Circuit," Perino said. "Even the lowest of the three ratings is a very high rating." The panel has issued three evaluations of Kavanaugh, in 2003, 2005 and last month.
Tober's statement came on the eve of a new confirmation hearing Tuesday on Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Democrats requested the new hearing, saying they wanted to question Kavanaugh about his experience, his role in the administration's secret wiretapping program and torture policy and if he had any relationship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has said he intends to hold a Senate vote on Kavanaugh's confirmation by Memorial Day. Democrats have said they are considering filibustering the nomination, a move that would require Kavanaugh to get 60 votes rather than a simple majority in the 100-member Senate.
Tober said in the statement that the ABA's Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary rates judicial nominees based on dozens of interviews with associates and re-evaluates them each time they are re-nominated.
He said investigators talked with dozens more judges and lawyers this year who were Kavanaugh's most recent associates. Tober added that a minority of the panel had voted for the lower rating in 2003 but that the majority then believed him to be "well-qualified."
Nonetheless, in 2003 there were concerns about Kavanaugh's courtroom experience, Tober wrote. He had never tried a case to verdict or judgment and had little experience with criminal cases.
Recent interviews with Kavanaugh's associates expanded on those concerns, Tober wrote. One judge who witnessed Kavanaugh's oral presentation in court said the nominee was "less than adequate" before the court and showed "experience on the level of an associate." Another lawyer said Kavanaugh "dissembled" in the courtroom, Tober wrote.
The new interviews also indicated for the first that Kavanaugh's White House experience rendered him "insulated" and raised concerns "about the nominee's ability to be balanced and fair should he assume a federal judgeship."
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., did not immediately respond to requests for comment.