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Hatch fears ABA ratings biased

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WASHINGTON — Sen. Orrin Hatch wants the American Bar Association to explain why a new study says it gives Republicans much worse ratings than similarly qualified Democrats.

"This study raises serious questions about the neutrality and fairness of the ABA evaluation process," Hatch wrote Thursday to ABA President Robert E. Hirshon.

Hatch, R-Utah, is the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The letter, which Hatch released Friday, came after Northwestern University Professor James Lindgren studied ABA ratings of Bush and Clinton nominees who had similar qualifications — and found Bush nominees were given worse ratings.

Hatch complained that the study found the odds of a Clinton nominee receiving the ABA's highest rating were between 6.8 and 10.9 times higher than for Bush nominees with similar credentials.

"A Bush nominee with top credentials — such as prior judicial experience, a top 10 law school education, private practice experience, government practice experience, and law review or a federal clerkship — had a lower chance (77 percent) of getting the highest ABA rating than a Clinton nominee who had none of these credentials (81 percent)," Hatch said.

He requested "a detailed explanation of the process by which the ABA evaluates judicial nominees, including the objective and subjective factors the ABA considers and the weight given to each."

Hatch complained that ABA rating letters simply state the ratings without providing a basis for the decision or information about the process. It also does not say specifically how many committee members vote for different ratings on each nominee.

The head of that rating committee, Roscoe Trimmier Jr., last week told the Deseret News that its 14 members vote after one of them conducts an investigation, and circulates conclusions along with samples of writings by the nominee.

Trimmier said members consider whether nominees have proper experience, judicial temperament and integrity. He said that in his experience, politics play no role in the ratings.

Hatch's complaint comes a week after the White House also attacked the ABA rating process over a Utah nominee to the federal bench.

University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell — nominated to be a federal district judge in Utah — had a majority on the ABA committee rule he is "well qualified," a minority say he is "qualified" and another minority say he is "not qualified."

Top Bush administration officials said the wide spectrum of votes on Cassell shows that either the criteria the ABA uses are flawed, or renegade members refuse to apply it fairly.

They said Cassell should easily have achieved an unqualified top rating because he has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, clerked for a chief justice, and is considered an expert in areas of law including victims' rights.

Bush administration officials also noted that the only people to receive partial ABA ratings of "not qualified" are Cassell — who Hatch pushed — and a former Hatch aide, Sharon Prost. That raised questions whether that was payback to Hatch for having reduced the role of ABA ratings when he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

When Democrats regained control, new Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., insisted on giving the ABA a formal role in rating nominees.

E-MAIL: lee@desnews.com