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Clinton's Judgeships

AFTER he names the top officials who will run his government, President-elect Clinton will have another pressing personnel matter to address: the nomination of more than 100 judges to fill vacancies in the federal courts. This unusually high vacancy rate - 12 percent of the 846 authorized federal judgeships - is slowing down the already plodding work of the clogged federal courts.

During the 12 years they controlled the White House, Presidents Reagan and Bush appointed two-thirds of the current federal judges. Most of their appointees were conservative jurists in their 40s who will serve well into the next century. The rightward tilt of the federal judiciary may be the most enduring legacy of the Reagan-Bush era.

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(The bench's conservative coloration would be even greater except that the Democratic-controlled Senate failed to act on more than 50 nominations that Mr. Bush sent up this year.)

Now Democrats are hungering to play catch-up. While Mr. Clinton himself has revealed little about his views on judicial philosophy and qualifications, many Democrats in the Senate and interest groups have left little doubt that, when it comes to judgeships, conservatives need not apply.

That's fine: It's how the game is played. Conservatives had their turn, and they systematically went about "stacking" the judiciary. Even many analysts who aren't liberal partisans believe that the judiciary has been thrown out of philosophical balance.

That doesn't mean, however, that on Jan. 20 the Clinton administration and the Senate majority should begin ramrodding into robes a host of liberal activists with agendas that they want to "legislate" from the bench.

In fact, that doesn't appear to be Clinton's style. In matters of policy and personnel he has tended to be centrist, careful, and respectful of American institutions and the American people.

Clinton is likely to do what he should: establish a screening committee of thoughtful lawyers and former judges with the charge to select nominees - men and women, including members of minority groups - with the experience, scholarship, and breadth of vision to be excellent judges. They should be selected without regard to any "litmus test," but they should be mindful of the nation's best traditions of tolerance and individual rights.

That most of these nominees will share Clinton's fundamental values and political instincts is only to be expected.

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To be done properly, the screening process necessarily will be painstaking. Yet it also must be done with a certain urgency. The demands for justice in America's courts mount relentlessly.


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