Chief Justice William Rehnquist is pressing senators to speed up judicial confirmations with a new urgency because of terrorism.
Rehnquist has complained before about slow confirmations, but he directed new, harsh criticism Tuesday at Democrats who have controlled the Senate since June and now decide whether and when to vote on President Bush's nominees.
"During times such as these, the role of the courts becomes even more important in order to enforce the rule of law," Rehnquist, a Republican, said in his annual report on the courts. "To continue functioning effectively and efficiently, however, the courts must be appropriately staffed."
There are 94 vacancies in the federal judiciary - about 11 percent of the 853 district, trade and appeals court judgeships, court records show. That's the most openings at the start of a year since January 1994, when there were 118.
Rehnquist said senators "ought to act with reasonable promptness and to vote each nominee up or down." He also said the president should choose judges quickly and try to recruit private attorneys for judgeships.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., defended the confirmation pace during what he called a "tumultuous year for the nation and also for the Senate."
President Bush had more choices approved in 2001 than the previous two presidents each had in their first year in office, Leahy said.
Of Mr. Bush's 64 judicial nominations, 28 were confirmed, Senate records show. That compares with 27 Clinton judicial confirmations in 1993 and 15 in the first Bush administration in 1989.
Leahy said the Senate will work to fill remaining vacancies after the holiday break.
"The president can help by choosing more nominees primarily for their fairness and abilities, instead of for their ideology," said Leahy.
White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said that with only about 43 percent of Mr. Bush's judicial nominations confirmed so far, "The president has done his part. Now it's time for the Senate to do theirs."
Hindering efforts to find good candidates for federal judgeships, Rehnquist said, are the "inadequacy of judicial pay I have spoken (of) again and again, without much result," and "the often lengthy and unpleasant nature of the confirmation process."
In his 16th annual report since becoming chief after his own difficult Senate confirmation, Rehnquist also discussed courthouse safety. An emergency preparedness office has been created for the federal courts, and a consultant has recommended tighter security at courthouses, background checks on employees and better protection for judges in and out of court.
In the meantime, Rehnquist said, Congress should give the Supreme Court more money for security.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, federal courts "have gotten back to business, even if not business as usual."
Anthrax contamination forced a weeklong closing of the Supreme Court building, and justices heard arguments in anothe location for the first time since the building opened in 1935.
In addition, Rehnquist said, anthrax-related mail problems might affect the number of cases the court hears this year. Traditionally, justices review about 80 a year.
By Gina Holland © MMII The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed