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Both sides are to blame for stalled judge nominations

WASHINGTON -- So who is the bad guy -- President Clinton or Sen. Orrin Hatch -- when it comes to stalling all federal judicial nominations in a fight over who should be a new judge in Utah?

Not surprisingly, the White House blames Hatch (and stepped up attacks this week in the national press), while Hatch says Clinton is wearing the black hat.Here's how the arguments go, first for Hatch.

He has done many favors for Clinton. They range from speaking up for him at the height of impeachment attacks to shepherding most of his nominees to confirmation, sometimes over howls from conservatives.

Hatch has essentially asked for one major favor in return: nominate Ted Stewart, a Republican who is Gov. Mike Leavitt's chief of staff, as a new federal district judge in Utah.

Worth noting is that most members of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- if not most senior senators -- by tradition are able to pretty much choose who will be nominated as district judges in their home states, as long as the selection is within reason.

And Hatch isn't just any senator, he's the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- who can determine how and when it will consider all nominees.

So Hatch doesn't see himself as seeking anything unusual or out-of-bounds in current politics by seeking Stewart's nomination, even if he is a Republican (Democratic presidents often nominate some Republicans to the bench).

He also doesn't see it as out-of-bounds to stall all other nominees when the White House developed heartburn over Stewart when it heard environmentalists hate him. Hatch hasn't scheduled any confirmation hearings on nominations -- 42 are pending -- since January.

Environmental groups wrote letters opposing Stewart, disliking his work as director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and his criticism of Clinton's secretive creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Environmental groups have done even more favors for Clinton than Hatch. And they are a core support group for Vice President Al Gore, who of course is running for president.

Now, the White House's point of view -- which it has been feeding to the national press over the past week -- is that Clinton should be able to nominate whomever he wants.

It says it is wrong for Hatch to gum up the works for all other nominees to press a case over one small judgeship in one small state (while Hatch says the same about Clinton).

They say this is the first time in 40 years that one senator has shut down the whole process. (The last was in 1959 when then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson pushed for nomination of a friend in Texas by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.)

The White House and Democrats are saying that Hatch's stand is hurting the courts and creating a backlog of cases as judgeships sit vacant.

The White House also floated stories that it is trying to negotiate a deal with Hatch that would allow Stewart to go through, if Hatch will automatically support numerous "pro-environment" judges -- so that environmental groups will feel they are gaining more than they are losing.

Maybe Hatch should in turn be asking the White House for more favors, too -- since what he has already given it, plus support for more judges with an environmental stamp of approval, would indeed be a high price tag for one small judgeship in one small state.

So the two sides are playing chicken, and both share responsibility for the confirmation slowdown.

As they say, it takes two to tango. Both have some logical points. But in the political measure of receiving a fair favor in return for one, the White House seems to be demanding too much and offering too little.

It should be so tough with Slobodan Milosevic, not Orrin Hatch.

Deseret News Washington correspondent Lee Davidson can be reached by e-mail at leed@dgs.dgsys.com