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Bush appointments may dominate court

  Political and Legal  -   POSTED: 2007/05/20 18:41

In the years since President Bush took office, he has picked three of the seven U.S. District Court judges in Colorado and The Pueblo Chieftain has learned he will have the chance to pick two more of them. If the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate confirms the Republican president's next two choices, he will have picked more of the court's full-time judges than any president since Colorado became a state. The president will get that opportunity next spring because two of the court's seven full-time judges disclosed in interviews that's when they will switch to part-time service, creating vacancies.

At that point, all of the judges will have been appointed by President Bush except for one judge picked by Democrat President Bill Clinton and one picked by President Bush's father, the first President Bush.

Switching to part-time service are Lewis Babcock of Denver and Walker Miller of Greeley.

Babcock is a native of Rocky Ford and was a state district court judge in Otero, Bent and Crowley counties from 1978 to 1983. Babcock was picked in 1988 for the court by former Republican President Ronald Reagan.

Miller was picked in 1996 by Clinton over Pueblo District Judge Dennis Maes, who wanted the job.

Judgeships on the U.S. District Court are coveted and prestigious. The judges, paid $161,000, are entitled to hold their jobs as long as they want.

Persons significantly involved in the matter say a deal between the president and the Senate is needed. A deal would make it more likely that nominees by the lame-duck president of one party will be confirmed by the Senate controlled by another party.

Otherwise, the court will be two judges short, creating a backlog of cases and slower-than-usual disposition of them.

If the two replacement judges are not confirmed before President Bush leaves office in January 2009, it is likely to be late in 2009, at the earliest, that the vacancies, which will occur early in 2008, would be filled.

Court veterans say a significant slow-down in handling cases, detrimental to persons with cases in the court, are likely if the court becomes two judges short.

The majority Senate Democrats, hoping their party's candidate will be elected president in November, could block confirmation of Bush's choices.

The state's two U.S. senators, Republican Wayne Allard and Democrat Ken Salazar, could play a key role in getting a deal to make it more likely that replacements will be in place promptly.

Allard's chief of staff, Sean Conway, said Friday that the senators met last month with Babcock, chief judge for the past seven years, and Edward Nottingham, who becomes chief judge on June 8 for a seven-year term, to discuss the need for promptly filling the expected vacancies.

Conway said the two senators plan to work together to try to get replacement judges in office as soon as possible "once the White House makes nominations based on our recommendations and with bipartisan support."

Conway said the two senators have "a very good working relationship," but have not yet decided on what process they will use to make recommendations to the president. In the past, senators have appointed bipartisan committees to offer suggested judgeship candidates to them before deciding whom to recommend to the president.

Salazar and his staff did not make themselves available for comment.

Bush in recent years picked Marcia Kreiger of suburban Denver, Robert Blackburn, who lived in Las Animas, and Phillip Figa of suburban Denver for the court. When those three were confirmed by the Senate it was controlled by Republicans and the president was not a lame-duck, so the potential was much less for political fighting over who would become judges.

Figa is seriously ill with a brain tumor, but has been working part time while undergoing extended treatment. He hopes to return to handling a fuller caseload when his health permits.

If he is unable to do that, his position could become open.

The first President Bush picked Nottingham, then of Grand Junction, in 1989. The other judge among the seven, Wiley Daniel of Denver, was picked in 1995 by Clinton.

In addition to the seven full-time judges, known in federal court parlance as "active" judges, the court now has three part-time judges, known as senior judges. There will be five part-time judges when Miller moves to that status in March and Babcock in April.

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