Senate Democrats dig in heels for longer review of Reagan judges

The Reagan administration is running into a bottleneck in its plans to appoint conservative judges to the federal bench. If unresolved, this snag could hurt the President's goal of putting a conservative stamp on the judicial system in the United States. The bottleneck is at the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Democratic senators are complaining that they need more time to investigate adequately the qualifications of President Reagan's recent selections for federal judgeships.

Last Friday, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Deleware, senior Democrat on the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee, carried out his threat to stonewall all judicial nominations coming before the committee unless new rules could be adopted giving investigators up to five weeks to probe the backgrounds of judicial candidates.

Some Senate Republicans are concerned that Democrats are looking for a means of delaying the appointment of Reagan judges until after the 1986 Senate race. The fear is that, should the Democrats regain control of the Senate, they might use their majority position in the Judiciary Committee to hold up Reagan's judicial appointments.

Such a development would undercut the administration's desire to appoint more than half of all federal judges in the US by the end of the President's term.

To date, the Reagan administration has appointed 233 of the total 743 federal judges. There are now 79 vacancies on the federal bench. The Senate is at present considering nominees to fill 24 of those posts.

``We don't have any objection to trying to regularize the confirmation process, but we want to guard against any kind of institutional procedure that would allow for partisan delay or just delay for delay's sake,'' says Mark Goodin, spokesman for the committee's chairman, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina.

Mr. Goodin adds, ``In the past there have been a number of occasions when the nomination process has just become a game of trivial pursuit.''

Peter Smith, spokesman for Senator Biden, counters, ``It is not the intention of the Democrats in this committee to block or delay nominations. All they are trying to get is an orderly procedure that will give those nominees who require careful scrutiny, the scrutiny they require.''

Senate majority leader Robert Dole and Democratic leader Robert C. Byrd are expected to negotiate a compromise on the issue next week when Congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess.

The Democrats have proposed a rule that would require at least three weeks' notice prior to a confirmation hearing in the committee and an additional two weeks' notice prior to a final Senate vote on a nominee. In addition, they are asking that there be no time restraints in the Senate review process for candidates deemed to be ``controversial.''

This action was prompted in part by concerns that the quality of judicial nominees has fallen during the Reagan administration's second term.

Several recent nominees have received the minimal ``qualified'' rating from the panel of the American Bar Association (ABA) which reviews the President's judicial appointments prior to their going to the Senate for final confirmation.

Grover Rees, special counsel for Judicial Selection at the Justice Department, says the ABA ratings of Reagan's nominees are as good as, if not better than, those received by the judges appointed during the Carter administration. He notes that an ABA rating of well-qualified depends heavily on whether the candidate has trial experience. But Mr. Rees argues that trial experience is not a prerequisite for a good judge in the administration's view, particularly at the appeals court level.

A ``qualified'' rating from the ABA indicates the candidate possesses the necessary attributes to serve as a federal judge. ``Qualified is not an insult,'' notes Rees.

Rees maintains that Democratic opposition to Reagan judicial candidates is ideologically motivated. ``Some people just hate the idea that Ronald Reagan can nominate a judge who is anything like Ronald Reagan.''

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