Senate Braces for Squabbles Over Federal Judge Appointees

Bush administration officials say that when the president announces his nominees for the federal bench, one will be a Clinton choice who would, if approved, become the first African-American to serve on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The president and his staff are convinced naming Roger Gregory to the bench will appease Democrats complaining about an unfair judgeship selection process.

In December, Clinton appointed Gregory to the 4th Circuit seat temporarily while Congress was in recess, in response to inaction by the Senate. At the time, the move infuriated many Republicans.

But Virginia Republicans George Allen and John Warner, who view Gregory as a moderate, have urged Bush to go ahead with the nomination in the hopes it will satisfy Democrats enough to make other appointments easier to pass through the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"The president is going to appoint Republicans," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democratic member of the committee. "We're prepared to vote for them. But not if the senators have been ignored in the person's home state."

In the past, a U.S. senator could effectively stop a nomination for a federal judgeship in his state by indicating a lack of support on a piece of paper known as a "blue slip" or by not returning the slip at all. Nine percent of the appellate court nominations were not acted on during the Reagan administration and 36 percent in the Clinton years, in part because of such maneuvers.

"The Republicans did in fact hold up a great number of judicial nominees," said Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University. "They were very assertive in the use of this senatorial privilege, this prerogative to essentially freeze a nominee. So it's going to be hard to get this away from the Democrats."

Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has raised the possibility of occasionally bypassing the blue slips, said he is simply pursuing what the Democrats have wanted until now.

"Only under very extraordinary circumstances would the judiciary chairman ignore that particular negative blue slip," Hatch said. "We ve always abided by that, and frankly it's an overblown issue."

Still, the squabbling has already delayed confirmation hearings on top Justice Department officials, including Solicitor General nominee Ted Olson. And the White House is looking to fill an unusually large number of federal judgeships: 67 on the district courts and 31 on the appellate level.

So Bush administration officials are treading carefully, saying senators of both parties will be consulted. It is their hope Gregory's appointment will make it tougher for Democrats to attack other more conservative judges expected on the list.