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WASHINGTON - Arguing in favor of wiping out filibusters of judicial nominees, Sen. Orrin Hatch has accused Democrats of creating a crisis in the courts by repeatedly denying President Bush's picks an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.

But during the Utah Republican's tenure as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, dozens of President Clinton's nominees never received an up-or-down vote, because their nominations were suffocated by procedural traps, a Tribune analysis of congressional records shows. Others were mired in the committee for years before being confirmed by the Senate.

"Senator Hatch treated nominees in a way that was unprecedented in the history of the Senate, an absolute outrage," charged Ralph Neas, president of People For the American Way, a liberal judicial advocacy group. "The hypocrisy for Senator Hatch to make the charges he has been making . . . is beyond comprehension."

Hatch defends his record, saying he gave Clinton's nominees a fair shake. He claims it distorts the record to compare the Democrats' use of filibusters to what happened in the committee under his watch.

"That's all B.S. and they know it," Hatch insists. "I don't think anybody can say I didn't do my best."

Democrats have used the filibuster or threat of a filibuster- a tactic allowing prolonged debate - to block votes on 10 of Bush's appeals court nominees. Hatch has said the Democrats are digging in to keep pro-life judges off the bench.

Frustrated Republican leaders threaten to end filibusters for judicial nominees by using the "nuclear option," meaning they would change long-standing Senate rules and allow a simple Senate majority - 51 votes - to cut off debate and confirm a judge. Outraged Democrats say they are being steamrollered and have threatened to bring the Senate to a standstill. A showdown could come early this month.

The outcome of the filibuster fracas will influence who Bush can pick to fill expected Supreme Court vacancies. If the filibuster remains an option, Bush would have to pick nominees who can get some support from Democrats.

Without a filibuster, he could pick more conservative judges.

"What's wrong with giving everyone a fair up and down once they come to the floor?" Hatch asks.

He is careful to include the qualifier "once they come to the floor," in his question, because during Hatch's tenure as Judiciary Committee chairman during the Clinton administration, 62 judges never made it to the floor, including a quarter of the Democratic president's appeals court nominees.

"During those years, they did not even have the decency to have hearings for judicial nominations," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "They simply left them . . . in the committee."

Hatch said it's common for nominees to get stuck in committee, either because nominations were submitted late or they lacked support in the Senate. Clinton still had 372 judges confirmed during his tenure, the second-highest total in history, and it came as Republicans ran the Senate for six of those eight years.

Hatch said there were a handful of those nominees whom he wishes were treated better, but insists he did his best with pressure coming from both Democrats and Republicans. Some in his party even wanted to filibuster nominees, but Hatch said he refused.

"I just put my foot down and said that's not going to happen on our watch," he said. "[Bush's nominees] have been treated shabbily. I'm not saying there weren't some bad feelings over some of Clinton's, but they got confirmed."

Bush has had considerable success in getting his judges confirmed. Of his 230 first-term nominees, 204 were confirmed, putting him on pace to place more judges on the bench than any other president.

Some of those who failed to make it through in his first term, such as Brigham Young University general counsel Thomas Griffith, have been re-nominated.

The filibuster today is different than in years past. Instead of staging grand oral marathons on the floor, senators must only indicate they plan to filibuster an issue to trigger the "cloture" requirement of 60 votes to bring a bill or nominee to a floor vote.

But in the late '90s, with Republicans in control of the Senate and Hatch in charge of the Judiciary Committee, GOP senators wielded options other than the filibuster, including placing anonymous holds on a nominee or refusing to schedule a committee hearing.

Ronnie White's nomination to a court in Missouri and Helene White's nomination to the court of appeals for the 6th Circuit languished in the Judiciary Committee for years.

Clinton's nomination of Judge Richard Paez, a Utah native who graduated from BYU, was pending for 1,520 days before it went to the floor, and Democrats had to gather 60 votes to stop debate and force a vote. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist voted against going ahead with the Paez vote.

In 1999, Hatch shut down the entire confirmation process, refusing to hold any hearings on judges until Clinton nominated Republican Ted Stewart, chief of staff to Gov. Mike Leavitt, to the bench over the objections of Democrats.

Once nominated, Stewart flew through the committee, further angering Democrats, who forced a cloture vote on the Stewart nomination, meaning 60 votes were needed to cut off debate before he could be confirmed. It is that same 60-vote threshold that has frustrated Republicans, who say the Constitution only requires 51 votes to confirm judges.

Despite Democrats' foot-dragging on some nominees, the number of judicial vacancies is at the lowest point in a generation: It now stands at 47.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said that, had Bush consulted with Democrats like Clinton did with Hatch, the standoff could have been averted. Hatch has said he consulted with Clinton on judges regularly, including recommending the nomination of two Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. But Hatch said Bush has done enough to reach out to Democrats.

"They want everything their way and they ignore all the rules," Hatch charged. "People cite all these facts like they're being abused when in fact it's the other way around. But we don't bellyache about it."

A primer on the filibuster

l What is it? A filibuster is any attempt to block or delay Senate action on a bill, confirmation or other matter by extended debate or other delaying tactics. Derived from a Dutch word meaning "pirate," it was used in both houses of Congress under the notion that any elected member should have the right to speak as long as necessary.

l Evolution: Unfettered filibuster rights continued in the smaller Senate long after they were scrapped in the House. But in 1917, the Senate adopted a rule that allowed cutoff of a filibuster with a two-thirds vote, called "cloture." The rule was modified in 1975 to reduce the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds (67) to three-fifths (60).

l Fiction and fact: The filibuster was made famous by the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," in which everyman/politician Jimmy Stewart fought the good fight in an hours-long monologue. But filibusters were infamously used in the 1950s and '60s by Southern senators to block civil-rights legislation. The longest individual speech was delivered by Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who rambled on for 24 hours and 18 minutes in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

l Judicial filibusters: The filibuster was first used against a judicial nominee in 1968 when Republicans blocked President Johnson's nomination of Abe Fortas as chief justice of the United States. There is no firm count of filibusters since then, but clotures - the best indicator of a filibuster - have been sought in at least 16 judicial nominations since then.

- Source: U.S. Senate and the Congressional Research Service