President Bush, continuing a pattern of naming white males to the federal judiciary, has nominated a top Justice Department official with no experience as a judge to fill an appellate court seat. The nominee, 36-year-old J. Michael Luttig, was given middling reviews by the American Bar Association (ABA) screening committee this month. A majority of the ABA committee said Luttig was "qualified," while a minority said he was not qualified. The ABA's highest ranking is "well-qualified."
Bush nominated Luttig to fill a seat on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and North Carolina. Federal appellate judges _ a notch up in the pecking order from District Court trial judges _ earn $132,700 a year and serve for life.
Murray Dickman, who coordinates judicial appointments for the Justice Department, said the Bush administration would have Luttig skip the intermediate step of serving as a trial court judge because he is "one of the most brilliant lawyers in the country."
Luttig is the special counselor to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and holds the title assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel. He has helped coordinate nominations of previous judicial candidates, including that of Supreme Court nominee David Souter.
In the 1980s, Luttig served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger and to then-appellate court Judge Antonin Scalia, who has since been elevated to the Supreme Court. He also worked a year-and-a-half in the Reagan White House and for four years in a Washington law firm.
George Kassouf, a spokesman for the liberal Alliance for Justice group, called Bush's choice troublesome because Luttig has "relatively little legal experience." The group, which helped kill the nomination of Miami federal Judge Kenneth Ryskamp to an appellate court, has not taken a position on Luttig.
If confirmed by the Senate, Luttig would be younger and, by ABA standards, less qualified than most of Bush's judicial nominees. Dickman said the fair ABA rating apparently stems from the committee's concerns about Luttig's age.
The average age of Bush's picks to fit appellate court positions is 48.5 years, according to a study by Sheldon Goldman, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Bush's nominees have scored higher than those of the last five presidents, Goldman's study said. Nearly 78 percent of Bush's appellate court nominees in 1989 and 1990 got the ABA's highest "well-qualified" rating, Goldman found. Fifty-eight percent of Bush's District Court nominees got the highest grade, he said.
Goldman, in a study published this month by Judicature law journal, found only one black and five women among the 48 nominees Bush chose for District Court judgeships in the first two years of his presidency. There was one black and two women among the 18 Bush nominees to the courts of appeals in 1989 and 1990.
President Reagan nominated six blacks among the 290 selections he made for District Court judgeships, or about 2 percent of the choices, Goldman found. Reagan named one black among the 78 people he nominated to appeals courts.
By contrast, nearly 14 percent of Democrat Jimmy Carter's selections to the district bench were black. Sixteen percent of Carter's appellate selections were black, Goldman said.
"I think the quality of justice improves with a more diversified bench," he said in a telephone interview.
Dickman, the Justice Department official, defended the Bush record and said it is getting better.
Just 3.2 percent of all lawyers are black, Dickman said, explaining that Bush does not have a large pool of applicants from which to choose. He pointed out that Bush last year urged senators to help him find qualified "non-traditional" judicial candidates. More blacks, Hispanic and women candidates are on the way this year, Dickman promised.