President Bush today ended the American Bar Association's traditional role in helping the White House screen prospective nominees to the Supreme Court and other federal courts.
The move had been telegraphed for days, but was made official today in a letter to ABA President Martha Barnett from White House counsel Alberto Gonzales.
"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," Gonzales wrote.
For 50 years, the ABA has helped presidents by reviewing the qualifications of nominees. While conservatives have complained the ABA tilts liberal, the group argues its judicial ratings are made by an independent panel that includes many respected Republicans.
Gonzales wrote that the White House would continue to consult the ABA, but will not consult the group "before and above all others."
"Although the president welcomes the ABA's suggestions concerning judicial nominees, the administration will not notify the ABA of the identity of a nominee before the nomination is submitted to the Senate and announced to the public," Gonzales wrote.
Barnett told reporters today she is "disheartened" by the decision, which was green-lighted by Bush after she met with Gonzales and Attorney General John Ashcroft on Monday.
"We are concerned that politics may be taking the place of professionalism in the review and we are hopeful that as the process goes forward, that the administration will find a way to make sure ... that they can continue to get confidential peer review of people who are nominated for the federal bench," Barnett said.
Exchanging Quality for Ideology?
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, derided the decision as a "sad day for American justice."
"It looks as though they are going to substitute ideology for quality," Schumer said. "For the last 50 years, the ABA was an essential part of the process, making sure that there was quality rather than ideology. Now all of that has changed."
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he will soon meet with ABA officials to work out a procedure for the organization to continue doing background checks on Bush judicial nominees — and submit them to the Senate.
Defending the ABA's past performance, Leahy said the group's background checks have saved many presidents embarrassment by helping the White House learn whether a nominee is unqualified.
"Every president since Dwight Eisenhower, both Republicans and Democrats, have used the American Bar Association to give them just one more piece of information about those who might be nominated for lifetime appointments to the federal bench," Leahy said.
Now, he said, "there will be embarrassment" when a nominee is found to be unqualified after being named.
Leahy and Schumer had written a letter to Bush warning the White House not to make the expected move. Gonzales responded today: "Of course, we appreciate that individual members of the Senate Judiciary Committee may choose to seek the ABA's views on judicial nominees."
"Based on the ABA's representation to me that it can complete an evaluation in 20 to 30 days," Gonzales wrote, "I am confident that any post-nomination ABA evaluation would not delay the committee's timely consideration of the president's nominees."
That's wishful thinking on the part of the White House. Both Schumer and Leahy vowed to block Bush judicial nominations from coming to a vote until the completion of ABA background checks.
Vic Ratner, Josh Gerstein and Aditya Raval contributed to this report.