Washington The Bush administration may end the American Bar Assn.'s half-century role in evaluating nominees to the federal bench, government sources said Saturday.
Bush's White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, is said to be reviewing the bar association's unofficial involvement prior to a meeting Monday with ABA officials.
"If there is anything to announce after the White House counsel meets with ABA officials next week, we will do so at that time," Deputy White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Saturday.
Lawyers close to the discussions told The New York Times that the possible policy shift is believed to be part of a larger objective to move the courts to a conservative stance after eight years of a Democratic president in the White House. Conservative Republicans have long complained that the ABA's evaluation of prospective judges is liberally biased, an accusation the bar association denies.
"I find it a sad and somewhat foolish thing to do," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee which reviews judicial nominees before action by the full Senate.
ABA officials said the panel of 15 lawyers used by the bar association since the 1950s to advise in the selection of judges to the Supreme Court and the federal bench has been guided by the nominees' professional qualifications, not their ideologies.
Schumer said the apparent move is "a real indication that they want to pick judges of the hard right." In contrast, he contended, "the mainstream of Congress is looking for judges of some moderation."
Schumer and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee's top Democrat, said such a change would "further polarize a process that, by now, all senators agree cries out for less partisanship." The two Democrats said they and other committee members would continue to consult with the ABA even if the administration decided not to.
ABA president, Martha W. Barnett of Tallahassee, Fla., said Saturday she had received "no indication from the White House or the Department of Justice that they have any plans to change what's been a half century tradition."
Barnett, who said she is meeting with Gonzales at the ABA's request, said the screening process develops "public trust, confidence" in judges.
The ABA rates prospective judges as "well qualified, qualified and in some instances, not qualified."
"One of the things our group has never looked at in 40-some years is political ideology; that's somebody else's job," Barnett said.
Conservatives raised the issue of the ABA's involvement in the judicial selection process during the clash between Republicans and Democrats over President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
The bar association gave Bork a mixed review, and many Republicans believe that played a significant role in the Senate's failure to confirm the conservative nominee.
In the Bush White House, a committee of senior administration officials, led by Gonzales, has interviewed more than 50 candidates in a bid to fill nearly 100 vacancies with judges who share Bush's conservative philosophy.
"We're looking for people who believe in judicial restraint, who don't believe in legislating from the bench," Gonzales said last week.
Candidates are not being asked for their views on abortion, Gonzales said, though other officials said judicial records are thoroughly reviewed for controversial rulings on that and other hot-button issues.
Bush, who opposes abortion, has said he would not use the issue as a "litmus test" for picking judges. But his pledge to nominate lawyers who strictly interpret the Constitution is widely viewed as a barrier against abortion-rights candidates.
Of the 862 federal judgeships, there are 94 vacancies for Bush to fill. Twenty eight of them are on the appellate courts, the level just below the Supreme Court.
Former President Clinton complained repeatedly during the last two years of his administration that Republicans were deliberately stalling action on his slate of judicial nominees.