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Editorials
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Sunday, May 12, 2002



[ OUR OPINION ]

Politics hinders Senate
confirmation process


THE ISSUE

Richard Clifton appears headed for Senate confirmation to a federal appeals judgeship.


PARTISAN politics has forced Hawaii lawyers to await Senate approval for nearly two years for a district judgeship and three years for a seat at the appellate level. Honolulu attorney Richard Clifton finally appears headed for confirmation to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals following a long-delayed hearing before the Judiciary Committee. The movement comes with the blessing of Hawaii's two Democratic senators, who have chosen to put Hawaii's interests above political hardball.

President Clinton nominated Honolulu attorney James E. Duffy to the 28-judge appeals court in June 1999, after Senators Inouye and Akaka won congressional approval of a provision entitling each state to at least one seat at that level. The Senate Judiciary Committee, controlled by Republicans, refused to act on Duffy's nomination, which left the judgeship open when President Bush took office.

Bush chose Clifton for the spot last June, after the Democrats had taken control of the Senate. Inouye, rankled by the GOP-led Senate's refusal to confirm Duffy, demanded an explanation of why his nomination had been allowed to expire. While Inouye awaited an answer, Clifton's nomination appeared to have been put on hold, leaving Hawaii unrepresented on the important appeals court, a situation Inouye had sought to correct.

Bush could have mollified Inouye by naming Duffy to a District Court vacancy created by Judge Alan Kay's decision to take retirement -- a part-time status -- but instead chose Frederick "Fritz" Rohlfing for the district judgeship in January. Clinton had nominated Hawaii Intermediate Appeals Court Judge John S.W. Lim to the district bench in June 2000, but the Republican Senate also let that nomination languish.

Bush accused Senate Democrats last weekend of "endangering the administration of justice in America" by taking too long to confirm his judicial nominees. Clinton had made the same complaint about Senate Republicans. Indeed, when Bush took office, more than 110 of the 853 authorized district and appellate judgeships were vacant, largely because of Senate inaction. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont pointed out that the 56 judges confirmed in the 10 months that Democrats have controlled the Senate exceeded the pace of confirmation in Clinton's first year.

While ideology is an appropriate reason for scrutinizing judicial appointments, that has not been an issue with the Hawaii nominees. Duffy's nomination drew praise from Republicans in Hawaii, and Clifton indicated at his confirmation hearing on Thursday that he has no intention of being a conservative renegade on a Circuit Court known for its liberal leanings. Partisan politics has served only to leave Hawaii short-handed in District Court and absent at the appeals level.



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