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Bush halts Bar's role in picking judges

WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the American Bar Association says President Bush's decision to end the group's half-century role in vetting prospective federal judges may mean more politics in the review process.

The White House announced Thursday it no longer will give the ABA advance word on names under consideration and first crack at reviewing prospective nominees' qualifications. Instead, the nation's largest lawyers' group will have to do its research after nominations become public, as do other organizations.

"We are concerned that politics may be taking the place of professionalism in the review," ABA President Martha Barnett said at a news conference. She said a committee of ABA lawyers will continue to rate nominees' qualifications, but she added that doing so after the names become public could prove confrontational.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, four years ago canceled the ABA's official role in rating judicial nominees before his committee. He complained the group had become too biased and political against conservatives.

Not surprisingly, Hatch praised Bush's decision. "In view of the fact that the president and the Senate already conduct a thorough examination of each candidate, the ABA should not be in the position of approving or disapproving nominees to the federal bench," Hatch said in a written statement.

He added, "There is no constitutional or statutory requirement that the ABA be given a special, privileged position in the judicial nomination process." However, he said that any senator is still "to consider the findings of the ABA," just as they are free to consider comment from any other "organizations that also desire to play a role in the deliberative process."

Bush signed off on the change in a meeting with White House Counsel Al Gonzales. Gonzales' letter informing Barnett of the decision took a rap at the ABA's advocacy work on policy, which includes support for abortion rights and a call for a death penalty moratorium.

"The question is whether the ABA should play a unique, quasi-official role and thereby have its voice heard before and above all others," Gonzales wrote.

The ABA began reviewing prospective nominees at Eisenhower's request in 1953. The reviews are conducted by a panel of lawyers isolated from the organization's political actions, Barnett said.