On Thursday, President Bush ended the nearly 50-year old tradition of inviting the American Bar Association (ABA) to perform pre-nomination evaluations of potential candidates for federal judgeships. Since 1953 presidents have provided the ABA with a list of potential federal judgeship nominees and requested an evaluation of the candidates’ professional qualifications. According to an ABA press release, Martha Barnett, president of the American Bar Association, said, ” By doing the pre-nominating vetting of the candidates with his or her peers, we have been able to help the Administrations avoid embarrassment for themselves and the nominees when there were problems indicating disqualification and to foster the public’s confidence in the nominees and the process. It is a mystery why the [Bush] Administration would not want this input.” Two Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee Members, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) criticized Bush’s decision and said they would continue to seek the advice of the ABA. Schumer went a step further saying he would insist no nominees be confirmed without the ABA’s evaluation.
In a letter from White House counsel Al Gonzales to the ABA, Gonzales wrote that granting the ABA the preferential vetting role is inappropriate due to the organization’s “public positions on divisive political, legal, and social issues that come before the courts.” However, many of the lawyers who are now in charge of evaluating judgeship nominees are associated with the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization who led the effort to eliminate the ABA’s role in the vetting process. In the 47 years the ABA has been performing pre-nomination evaluations, the organization prided itself on objective, non-partisan reviews, with no consideration of the candidates’ ideologies or political views.