Probing the judges

Posted: May 16, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

 The other four possible Supreme Court nominees whose records have been requested all reached the appellate bench by George W. Bush's selection: Jeffrey Sutton (6th Circuit) of Cincinnati; Michael McConnell (10th Circuit) of Salt Lake City; John Roberts (D.C.) of Washington and Diane Sykes (7th Circuit) of Chicago.

 One of the appellate judges who learned that his financial records were sought by a Democratic political consulting firm told a friend that he felt violated by this political intrusion. He did not know that the firm's client was NARAL.

 The abortion advocacy group surely was not asking the judges' views on abortion. Nancy Keenan, who has been NARAL's president some five months, told this column her organization is concerned about "out of touch theological activists" becoming judges. Why seek financial information from them? She said the disclosure information might help identify the "character" of judicial nominees.

 Which nominees? "We have lots of nominees that we have great concern about," said Keenan. "We're watching all of them." In short, NARAL has hired private investigators to embark on a fishing expedition to find irregularities in potential selections for the Supreme Court.

 What additional information about sitting judges is being sought by Varoga & Rice is unknown. But Harry Reid is clearly into probing the detailed backgrounds of nominees. Asserting that Democrats would probably filibuster Michigan appellate nominee Henry Saad, he explained: "All one needs to do is have a member go upstairs and look at his confidential report from the FBI, and I think we would all agree that there is a problem there." The minority leader's statement shocked colleagues, but it may well be a taste of much more of the same to come.