WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is considering ending the American Bar Association's long-standing role as a semiofficial screening panel for nominees to the federal bench, government sources said Saturday.
The proposal is believed to be part of a larger objective to shift the courts in a conservative direction and to satisfy conservative Republicans who have long complained that the ABA is liberally biased in its evaluation of prospective judges, lawyers close to the discussions told The New York Times.
Bush's White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, told the newspaper that the administration was reviewing the bar association's role, but declined to comment further pending a meeting Monday with bar association officials, as did a White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, on Saturday.
"If there is anything to announce after the White House counsel meets with ABA officials next week, we will do so at that time," McClellan said.
ABA's president, Martha W. Barnett of Tallahassee, Fla., said she had received "no indication from the White House or the Department of Justice that they have any plans to change what's been a half century tradition."
Barnett, who was meeting Monday with Gonzales, said the screening process develops "public trust, confidence" in judges.
Two Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which reviews judicial nominees, wrote Bush to express their "serious concern" about ending the ABA's role.
Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the committee, said the change would "further polarize a process that, by now, all senators agree cries out for less partisanship." The Democrats said they and other committee members would consult with the ABA even if the administration decided not to.
Schumer said Saturday that the move "is a real indication that they want to pick judges of the hard right, the mainstream of Congress is looking for judges of some moderation."
Since the 1950s, the bar association has used a special committee of 15 lawyers to advise in the selection of federal and Supreme Court justices. The committee has been very influential in the selection process.
The last time such an objection was made was during the Reagan administration, when Democrats and Republicans tussled over the candidacy of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
The bar association gave a mixed review of Bork, and many Republicans believe that played a significant role in Bork not being confirmed.
In the Bush White House, a committee of senior administration officials, led by Gonzales, has interviewed more than 50 candidates in a bid to fill nearly 100 vacancies with judges who share Bush's conservative philosophy.
"We're looking for people who believe in judicial restraint, who don't believe in legislating from the bench," Gonzales said last week.
Candidates are not asked for their views on abortion, Gonzales said, though other officials said judicial records are thoroughly reviewed for controversial rulings on that and other hot-button issues.
Bush, who opposes abortion, has said he would not use the issue as a "litmus test" for picking judges, but his pledge to nominate lawyers who strictly interpret the Constitution is widely viewed as a barrier against abortion-rights candidates.
Of the 862 federal judgeships, there are 94 vacancies for Bush to fill, with 28 of them on the appellate courts, the level just below the Supreme Court.
During the 2000 election cycle, lawyers, law firms and their political action committees contributed $73.6 million to Democratic candidates and $32.3 million to Republicans, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
Bush received about $6 million from lawyers and law firms, compared with $5.3 million for his Democrat rival, Al Gore.