WASHINGTON – The American Bar Association rated one of President Bush's judicial nominees "not qualified" Wednesday, prompting a call from a liberal group for the president to withdraw the Mississippi lawyer's nomination.
A panel of the nation's largest lawyers group voted unanimously to give its lowest rating to Michael Wallace, Bush's nominee for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Wallace, 54, had been special counsel to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi during the impeachment trial of President Clinton in 1999. He also worked for Lott in the 1980s after serving as a law clerk to then-Associate Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist.
The White House immediately disagreed with the ABA and rejected its rating.
"Mike Wallace is a well-respected attorney with extensive experience in constitutional and commercial law," said White House spokeswoman Erin Healy. "He has had an outstanding record and will make an excellent addition to the bench."
Wallace has never served as a judge. If confirmed to the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit, he would handle appeals from federal courts in Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.
"Wallace is the first appeals court nominee in 25 years to receive a unanimous 'not qualified' rating from the ABA," said Ralph Neas, president of the liberal group People For the American Way. "The president should immediately withdraw his nomination."
An unanimous "not qualified" rating is rare from the ABA, which has graded judicial candidates since the 1950s on three factors: integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament.
Most presidents have avoided poor ABA ratings on judicial nominees by submitting the names of prospective candidates for the ABA to review before nominations were made. Bush abandoned the practice when he took office in 2001. Many conservatives view the ABA as liberal-leaning.
ABA leaders have been asked to testify during Senate confirmation hearings in the past when they find that a judge nominee is not qualified.
The ratings are decided by the 15 members of the ABA's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary. The rating possibilities are "well-qualified," "qualified" and "not qualified."
Last week, the ABA said that one of Bush's choices for a federal judgeship in Connecticut was "not qualified," but the panel's vote was not unanimous. Not counting the latest ratings, just six of nearly 200 nominees since 2003 have received a rating of "not qualified."
Wallace, of Jackson, Miss., was named in February to the 5th Circuit spot previously held by Charles Pickering Sr., whose nomination was contentious. Democrats blocked the choice so Bush bypassed the Senate and gave Pickering a temporary recess appointment.
Wallace, a longtime member of the influential Federalist Society and lawyer for the Mississippi Republican Party, is a graduate of Harvard University. He received his law degree from the University of Virginia.