Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- On May 5, the U.S. Judicial Conference in Washington received a request from a man named Mike Rice from Oakland, Calif., for the financial disclosure records of U.S. Appeals Court Judge Edith Jones (5th Circuit) of Houston. A 20-year veteran on the bench, Jones is a perennial possibility for the U.S. Supreme Court. The demand for her personal records is part of a major intelligence raid preceding momentous confirmation fights in the Senate.

 Jones was not alone as a target, and Rice is not just a nosy citizen. He and Craig Varoga, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, are partners in a California political consulting firm. Their May 5 petition requested financial information on 30 appellate judges in all but one of the country's judicial circuits, including nine widely mentioned Supreme Court possibilities. Varoga & Rice's client: NARAL Pro-Choice America.

 Nobody can recall any previous mass request for such disclosures by federal judges. This intelligence raid is financed by the abortion lobby, but it looks to Republicans like a front for Reid and other senators who will consider President Bush's appointments for Supreme Court nominations. But Reid told me that he had heard nothing about this, adding: "It's ridiculous. What do we have [Senate] committees for?" However, the material is certain to be given to Democratic senators well in advance of senatorial deliberations.

 Varoga, a former communications director for Sen. Reid, was national field director for Gen. Wesley Clark's 2004 presidential campaign. While Rice bills himself as an "expert" on "state public-records laws," his special field has been negative research probing the background of political foes. Varoga & Rice promises "public records research" that "can help you win elections, contracts and lawsuits." But compiling financial profiles of judicial nominees plows new ground.

 Rice described himself as a "public records researcher" on May 5 when he asked the Judicial Conference's Financial Disclosure Committee for the financial statements of 30 judges. Rice did not reveal he was acting as a paid agent of NARAL.

 In addition to Judge Jones, papers filed by Varoga-Rice asked for information from eight other appellate judges who are considered possible Supreme Court candidates. They include the veteran James Harvie Wilkinson, who has served on the 4th Circuit in Charlottesville, Va., for 21 years. Other veteran judges targeted by Varoga & Rice who were on the bench prior to this administration include Emilio Garza (5th Circuit) of San Antonio, J. Michael Luttig (4th Circuit) of Alexandria, Va., and Samuel Alito (3rd Circuit) of Philadelphia.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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