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It's unfortunate that the nomination of Deputy Salt Lake County Attorney Roger Livingston to be a 5th Circuit Court judge is turning into a partisan controversy.

It's doubly unfortunate that it is happening with the very first nomination to be considered by the Senate Confirmation Committee.The panel was set up in the past session of the Legislature to deal with nominations by the governor. After holding hearings, it is supposed to make a formal report to the Senate as a whole.

Previously, the process was more informal, with senators reviewing gubernatorial nominees during interim-day caucuses and then going to the Senate floor to quickly confirm them.

In the case at hand, the political controversy involves the fact that Livingston was a Republican member of the Legislature in the late 1970s, and was a GOP candidate for Salt Lake County attorney in 1980 and again in 1986. The objections to his appointment as a judge come from the Senate Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Rex Black, D-Salt Lake, raised questions about rumors that Livingston had once considered having a car stolen and destroyed to get out of an auto lease he found onerous.

Yet that story was investigated by the county attorney's office and no charges were ever filed. An investigation also was conducted by the Salt Lake County Grand Jury, which handed up no indictments.

Certainly, that story ought to be put to rest. And members of the Senate Confirmation Committee are right to explore it as part of their review of Livingston's nomination. But it is clearly premature for some legislators to ask that Livingston's name be withdrawn before any hearings have been held.

Long before the governor picks a nominee, the system for choosing judges goes to great lengths to get qualified people and to avoid any hint of political partisanship.

When a vacancy occurs on the bench, a Judicial Nominating Commission is formed. Its seven members include a Utah Supreme Court justice; four members named by the governor, with no more than two of the same political party, and two members of the Utah State Bar.

The state court administrator's office does background studies of all applicants and the commission screens and interviews those applicants. Three finalists are chosen.

Only then can the governor nominate a judge from one of those three.

That process is designed to ensure that nominees are qualified in a legal sense and also have no skeletons in their private closets.

Having cleared that hurdle, Livingston should be judged on his merits and not have legislators make up their minds in advance that he is unacceptable. At this point at least, he seems qualified and capable of being a circuit court judge.