ABA, White House at Odds over Judicial Nominee

The Senate Judiciary Committee weighs the nomination of Michael Wallace to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit. Wallace was deemed unqualified for the post by the American Bar Association in a unanimous vote, saying he lacked the freedom from bias necessary to be an effective judge.

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And how can you tell whether a good lawyer will make a good judge? The Senate Judiciary Committee tried to answer that question last night. The senators are considering a judicial nominee named Michael Wallace. President Bush has tapped him for a lifetime appointment on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

A screening committee of the American Bar Association has unanimously rated him not qualified for the position. NPR's Ari Shapiro has more.

ARI SHAPIRO: Nobody has any concerns about Michael Wallace's educational and professional qualifications - Harvard undergrad, law school at the University of Virginia, clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The reason the American Bar Association rated Wallace not qualified boils down to one phrase: judicial temperament.

Kim Askew led the ABA's investigation of Wallace. She interviewed nearly 70 people, including the nominee himself to assess his suitability for the job.

Ms. KIM ASKEW (ABA Investigator; Partner, Hughes & Luce, LLP): Judges and lawyers who had interacted with Mr. Wallace concluded that he lacked the freedom from bias necessary to be an effective judge. They believed he would not follow the law or would ignore it if he disagreed with it.

SHAPIRO: The ABA's written statement says: Lawyers and judges stated that Mr. Wallace did not understand or care about issues central to the lives of the poor, minorities, the marginalized, the have-nots and those who do not share his view of the world.

Wallace disputed that conclusion and the process the ABA used to reach it.

Mr. MICHAEL WALLACE (Fifth Circuit Court Nominee): They may very well be reporting the opinions they heard. I don't think those opinions are well founded. And the difficulty is that I never was told the supposed facts behind those opinions, so there was no opportunity to explore them and to rebut them.

SHAPIRO: Wallace's supporters say he is being blamed for doing a lawyer's job well - vigorously representing his clients. As an attorney for the Mississippi Republican Party, Wallace fought against parts of the Voting Rights Act.

When he worked for then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, he helped argue that Bob Jones University should receive tax-exempt status even though the school discriminated on the basis of race. Senator Lott attended yesterday's hearing and defended Wallace's action.

Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi): He has been criticized sometimes for things he did while working for me. I was the person in the leadership position. He worked under the direction of the person he was serving, so I feel particularly aggrieved when I see those sort of unfair allegations.

SHAPIRO: The ABA knows the difference between advocacy and personal bias, said Kim Askew.

Ms. ASKEW: We fully understand that lawyers can zealously represent their clients. And the lawyers and judges that I interviewed drew a very clear distinction between the zealous representation of a client and taking positions which they believed went beyond the point of zealous representation.

SHAPIRO: This is the first time the ABA's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary has unanimously given its lowest rating to one of President Bush's nominees to a federal appeals court.

The White House has continued to stand behind its nominee. The NAACP and other civil rights groups oppose him. Carroll Rhodes represents the NAACP's Mississippi chapter.

Mr. CARROLL RHODES (Representative, NAACP Mississippi Chapter): We believe that Mr. Wallace is insensitive to poor Americans. We're talking about poor people in America primarily within the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

SHAPIRO: Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson disagreed. As an African-American and a Democrat who's worked with Wallace at a law firm for the last 15 years, he said he has nothing but praise for the nominee.

Mr. REUBEN ANDERSON (Former Justice, Mississippi Supreme Court): I don't agree with a whole lot that our president does, but this is one smart thing that he has done and that is recommending Mike Wallace to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

SHAPIRO: Panelists outnumbered senators at yesterday's hearing. The chairmanship was left to Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. Sessions noted that he was in line for a federal judgeship under President Reagan until the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against him, citing some of the same concerns Wallace's opponents expressed yesterday.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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