President Bush is ending the American Bar Association's special, half-century role in vetting prospective Supreme Court justices and other nominees to the federal bench.
White House Counsel Al Gonzales on Thursday sent a letter to ABA president Martha Barnett and two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee informing them that the White House would no longer give the organization advance word on names under consideration and first crack at researching prospective nominees.
"The question is whether the ABA should play a unique, quasi-official role and then have its voice heard before and above all others," Gonzales wrote. "We do not think that kind of preferential arrangement is either appropriate or fair."
Mr. Bush signed off on the change in a private meeting with Gonzales.
At a news conference, Barnett said an isolated committee of ABA lawyers would continue to study and rate nominees according to their records. But she worried that doing so after the names become public could prove confrontational.
"We are concerned that politics may be taking the place of professionalism in the review," Barnett said.
Republican officials said the move was driven largely by conservatives, especially on Capitol Hill, still bitter about the failure of President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Many conservatives see the ABA as favoring the left and blame its mixed review of Bork's qualifications for his rejection by the Senate.
Indeed, conservatives celebrated the move.
"This group cannot be doggedly partisan on issues and expect to be considered nonpartisan on judicial candidate evaluations," said House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis.
Clint Bolick at the conservative Institute for Justice accused the ABA of using "a liberal prism to disqualify highly qualified conservative nominees."
But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the White House was moving "to substitute ideology for quality" in the selection of judges.
Asked if conservatives' views on the ABA were taken into consideration, Gonzales said, "I can't speak for those who might harbor that view. This is based purely on the principle that it's inappropriate and unfair to give preferential treatment to any single group."
Gonzales promised a "full vetting" of judicial prospects within the administration and said the White House would not seek to substitute another, more conservative outside research group for the bar association.
Ralph G. Neas, president of People For the American Way, a liberal-leaning lobbying group, said the Bush administration had demonstrated "exceedingly poor judgment" in ending the AA's role.
"This action is a blatant concession to the far right, which has made no secret of its anger over the ABA's failure to rubber-stamp the nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas," said Neas in a statement.
In his letter, Gonzales wrote: "It would be particularly inappropriate, in our view, to grant a preferential, quasi-official role to a group, such as the ABA, that takes public positions on divisive political, legal and social issues that come before the courts."
An ABA research committee has investigated prospective judges for the past 50 years. The organization has gone on record in support of abortion rights, and has called for a moratorium on the death penalty until that issue can be further studied.
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