Senators decry judge nomination process
By Susan Roth
Advertiser Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON Hawai'i's senators say they object to the way the Bush administration went about nominating a Republican attorney to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and they are not ready to approve his appointment.
The White House says it went by the book in the nominating process. But apparently that book is different in each case, because other Democratic senators have been treated differently by the administration.
Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, both Democrats, have each received the "blue slip" from the Senate Judiciary Committee requesting their approval of Richard Clifton of Honolulu, counsel to the Hawai'i Republican Party. Neither senator has yet returned the slips to the committee, saying they need more information on the nominee.
Until both senators return the slips approving Clifton's nomination, the committee will not act on it. In order for Clifton to get the job, a majority of the committee and the Senate must vote for his appointment.
Inouye and Akaka say they want to see evaluations of Clifton by the American Bar Association and the Hawai'i State Bar Association, as well as Clifton's FBI background report. The Senate committee already has the FBI report, which is part of the White House's vetting process, and committee staffers said the report is available to the senators.
The American Bar Association may be conducting an evaluation of Clifton, but a spokeswoman said such matters are confidential.
The Hawai'i State Bar Association's board of directors interviewed Clifton last week and unanimously voted to rate him as "highly qualified" for the position, the highest possible recommendation. The association will soon send letters notifying the Senate committee and the senators.
Inouye and Akaka insist that it's the process that has irritated them, not Clifton's politics. However, Gov. Ben Cayetano has not been shy about opposing Clifton's nomination, saying he is too partisan to be a fair judge.
Both senators acknowledge that they are upset that the White House dropped the nomination of Hawai'i attorney James Duffy in favor of Clifton. After consulting extensively with the senators, President Clinton nominated Duffy to the same position in 1999, but his nomination was one of more than 60 that the Republican-led Senate never acted on.
The senators are annoyed that the White House did not consult with them the same way for the Clifton nomination. But a spokesman said administration officials sought to discuss the nomination with them on several occasions.
"According to our telephone logs, there were no less than 27 phone calls between the legal counsel's office and Sen. Inouye and Akaka's offices," said White House spokesman Ken Lisaius. "They were notified of the president's intentions early on. I believe the White House counsel himself placed calls to both senators, letting them know that Mr. Clifton was under serious consideration."
Staff for both senators say that's true, but that's the problem the White House merely notified the senators of the president's choice, and never asked their opinion. Staffers said the senators learned that Clifton was the leading candidate from media reports in March and that White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, a former judge, did not call until April.
The senators, meanwhile, reiterated their support for Duffy.
Other judicial nominations have been handled differently by the White House.
Two names were withdrawn before they were formally nominated because of opposition from Maryland and California senators. Both states, like Hawai'i, have two Democratic senators. That was even before the Democrats gained control of the Senate in late May.