Political motives suspected as jobs on bench go unfilled
Seattle Times staff reporter
Finalists for the federal bench
A bipartisan panel of local lawyers has selected three candidates for a judicial vacancy on the U.S. District Court in Seattle. The White House did interviews in September but has yet to name a nominee. The finalists:
Marc Boman: Partner, Perkins Coie. Specialist in commercial litigation. Recipient of Washington State Bar Association's "Award of Merit" for long-term service to the bar. Served on Seattle Ethics and Election Commission from 1995 to 1998.
Richard Jones: King County Superior Court judge since 1994. Named 2004 "Judge of the Year" by King County Bar Association and Washington State Bar Association. Assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, 1988 to 1994, associate at Bogle & Gates, 1983 to 1987.
Michael Rickert: Skagit County Superior Court judge since 1992. Previously Skagit County prosecutor, 1986 to 1992.
Source: Seattle Times reporting
Despite a process designed to keep politics out of judicial selections, some in the local legal community are wondering whether politics is behind a delay by the White House in filling two vacancies on the U.S. District Court in Western Washington.
A seat on the federal bench in Tacoma has been open since March 2005, and a seat on the federal bench in Seattle opened in July.
In both cases, a bipartisan panel of local attorneys screened applicants and sent three recommendations to the White House; since 1997, the president has picked his nominee from among three names chosen by such panels.
But the White House, in an unprecedented move, rejected all three candidates for the Tacoma vacancy. The office of White House Counsel Harriet Miers told the bipartisan panel that none of the candidates was sufficiently qualified and asked for three more nominees.
The decision troubled many local lawyers and judges who know the three spurned finalists. Sources close to the selection process, speaking on condition of anonymity, called the White House decision "appalling," "outrageous" and a "travesty," and suspect the White House already has a replacement in mind who was not on the list.
Republicans and Democrats alike said the candidates rejected by the White House were eminently qualified. One, confirmed by sources as Karen Strombom, is already a federal magistrate judge in Tacoma.
A new set of candidates for the Tacoma vacancy was sent to the White House in August, around the same time that candidates for the Seattle opening were proposed, sources said. A nomination still hasn't been made by the White House.
The finalists for the Seattle opening have heard nothing since they were interviewed by the White House in September. Nor has the selection committee, said co-chairs Jenny Durkan of Seattle and J. Vander Stoep of Chehalis.
According to several sources close to the merit panel, the candidates selected for the Seattle vacancy were King County Superior Court Judge Richard Jones, Skagit County Superior Court Judge Michael Rickert and Marc Boman, a partner at the Perkins Coie law firm.
Rickert confirmed he was interviewed at the White House on Sept. 6. Jones and Boman declined to comment.
"It's an honor to be considered," Rickert said. "To have a dog in the hunt is very nice."
The delay has raised questions in local legal circles about whether the White House might again reject a merit panel's recommendations, or choose its own nominee.
The questions intensified when rumors surfaced that John McKay, the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, was also interviewed by the White House Counsel's Office. McKay said last summer he applied for the Seattle vacancy, and many local lawyers considered him the front-runner for the job.
The Seattle Times confirmed that McKay traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with White House officials about the vacancy, but sources said it was not clear if it was a formal job interview.
McKay declined to confirm or deny that the meeting took place.
"I'm not in a position to comment on this midprocess," McKay said. "I'm going to wait for the White House to make a decision along with everybody else."
If President Bush nominates McKay rather than one of the three judges selected by the bipartisan merit panel, it would be the second significant snub of the process by the White House in less than a year, judicial observers said.
The merit-panel process started in 1997 after an agreement initially hammered out by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, and former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton and the Clinton administration.
A letter from former White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to Murray in March 2002 made it clear the Bush administration reserved the right to go its own way with judicial nominations.
"All parties have agreed that [bipartisan panels] can be a source for identifying and evaluating candidates," wrote Gonzales, who is now attorney general. "I also propose that neither the president nor you be bound to adhere to the [panels'] evaluations in all instances."
The White House declined to shed light on any of the developments.
"As far as nominations always go, we don't speculate or comment until the process has been completed and the president is ready to make his announcement," said Peter Watkins, a White House spokesman.
Vander Stoep said he does not know when Bush will select his nominees.
"I know the White House wants to move as quickly as possible, and I know the senators want to move as quickly as possible," Vander Stoep said. Durkan said she is hopeful that the White House will abide by the process that has worked to name judges in Washington for the past decade, but she is not making predictions.
"Any of the candidates [for the Seattle vacancy] would serve the president and the country incredibly well," Durkan said. "But that's what I thought about Tacoma."
David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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