THE Clinton administration is racing to reshape the nation's courts.
When he took office, President Clinton vowed to repopulate federal benches with a diverse group of ``centrists.'' Now, two years later, there are still some 70 vacant spots on federal courts - including 16 important appellate judgeships.
But time may be running short for the White House to leave its stamp on the federal judiciary - one of the most important legacies of any administration. Already, judicial nominations face tough scrutiny in a GOP-controlled Senate. This vetting will only become more arduous as the 1996 election nears.
``The Clinton team thought they would get to judges in the second term,'' says David O'Brien, author of a book on the Supreme Court. ``They were confident of reelection. Now they are playing catch-up.''
His two GOP predecessors put some 550 of the 847 active judges on the bench - many conservatives who seek to curb individual rights and stress tougher law enforcement and punishment.
The White House, after a slow start, has pushed through 129 appointments, many of them considered moderates. The group, three-fifths women and minorities, has earned the highest legal rating of any selection in three decades from the American Bar Association.
Yet if not reelected, the administration may find itself in a spot similar to the Bush White House, which unwittingly bequeathed some 110 vacancies to Mr. Clinton.
Currently, nominations have slowed to a crawl. Since Jan. 1, the White House has sent only 15 names to the Senate Judiciary Committee for approval, a process that can take six months.
``They have to act very quickly. I mean now,'' says Sheldon Goldman, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts. ``The confirmation window is closing fast.''
A senior White House legal counsel disagreed: ``We are doing fine with the timing. We expect 10 more to go up this month.''
The 16 vacancies on the circuit court of appeals are especially sensitive. These 13 regional supreme courts have 179 judges that carry the main burden of American justice, ruling on up to 70,000 cases a year. (By contrast, the Supreme Court rules on 200.)
In recent weeks the White House has faced considerable cross-fire over nominees. In January, it withdrew support of two liberal nominees targeted by conservative Republicans - angering Democrats on the left.
Samuel Paz, a Hispanic lawyer from Los Angeles who specialized in police brutality cases, was opposed by conservative law enforcement groups. Judith McConnell, a San Diego judge, in 1987 awarded custody of a 17-year-old to the gay partner of the boy's deceased father instead of to the mother.
``We don't want any judges who will legislate from the bench,'' says a spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary chairman Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah.
Conservatives such as Thomas Jipping of the Washington-based Free Congress Foundation, who helped nominate Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court, calls the current nominees ``quite left wing.''
Nan Aron of the liberal Alliance for Justice, also in Washington, says: ``I would like to see more justices with a commitment to social justice.''
Both sides see liberal Washington lawyer Peter Edelman's bid for a seat on the Washington, D.C., circuit court as a test case. Prior to November it appeared Mr. Edelman would be nominated; but the White House has been silent since. Insiders say Clinton's strategy is to focus on getting moderates through, rather than fighting over a few cases.
ACTUALLY, while attention has been fixed on cases such as the 1987 ruling by Judge McConnel, many jurists praise Clinton's judicial appointments. They cite the highest bar association rating in memory.
They note an emphasis on women and minority judges that are not ideological. Court-watchers such as Mr. Goldman say the decision to nominate has been more on merit than the old system of political patronage.
Moreover, of the 129 judges approved before November, only two were contested. Several appointments have been Republicans - including an anti-abortion judge in Wyoming.
``The real story here,'' says one Supreme Court clerk, ``is the number of incredibly qualified and incredibly diverse individuals that are coming from a moderate rather than extremist wing of judicial thought.''
Law Professor O'Brien worries that Senator Hatch will raise a red flag on a few nominees in order to slow down the entire process: ``The Republican strategy seems to be target minor blemishes in otherwise stellar careers in order to delay appointments.''
Several legal analysts say the new Clinton ``centrists'' are an intriguing breed of jurist that can't be easily cast in old left-right categories. They have dealt with jurisprudence on busing, abortion, and school prayer - as well as civil rights.
``Clinton has not been going to the Robert Borks of the left who attract attention,'' says Goldman.
John Jeffries, a Republican lawyer who argued a church-state case before the Supreme Court last week, praises Clinton's appointments: ``They are for the most part brilliant people with real ability.''