Campaign casualty

Cheryl Wattley's appointment to the federal bench is M.I.A. in presidential politics

A few weeks ago, as Cheryl Wattley was filling out her daughter's financial-aid package for Amherst College where she'll be a freshman this fall, the Dallas attorney and single mother of four paused when it came to questions about her job status.

Are you employed? the application asked.
Well, sort of, Wattley thought to herself, with a mixture of frustration and bemusement. For the last six months, Wattley has held her legal practice in abeyance, reluctant to take on new clients as she waits to learn the fate of her appointment to the federal bench in the North Texas District.

It has been a year since Wattley, a former federal prosecutor now in private legal practice, was first recommended for the position by the U.S. congressional delegation from North Texas and six months since her nomination cleared the major hurdles--an FBI background check, American Bar Association approval, and the official backing of the state's Republican senators, Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Now her nomination is hopelessly stuck within the Senate Judiciary Committee bureaucracy, awaiting a hearing that may not come until after the November presidential election.

No one is more frustrated than Dallas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, who has personally lobbied a multitude of prominent U.S. senators on Wattley's behalf. Wattley, who served as director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at Southern Methodist University, would be the first African-American on the federal bench in North Texas.

"To be honest, I think that if any effort was being made at all by our Texas senators, than this judgeship would be done," says Johnson. "This position has been vacant for six years. It is an emergency situation."

A federal judgeship in the North Texas District has become vacant more recently. Michael Schattman, a Fort Worth state district judge, has been nominated for that position and hasn't gotten any further in the process than Wattley.

The two vacancies have been keenly felt. "It impacts our office as much as anybody," says U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins, whose office prosecutes federal criminal and civil cases. "With the Speedy Trial Act, the criminal cases take precedence and the civil cases are pushed back even further and are collecting dust."

Since January, only three of Clinton's judicial appointments--two circuit court judges and one federal court judge--have been confirmed by the U.S. Senate, according to Senate Judiciary Committee press secretary Jeanne Lopatto. Seventeen appointments have made it through the committee and are awaiting Senate confirmation.

Another 24 nominations are pending in committee. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, normally holds monthly hearings, where four to six nominations are considered. The January meeting was not held because the Senate was preoccupied with budget hearings. Then the April and May hearings were canceled because the terrorism bill took up so much of the Senate's time.

In the next three weeks, Hatch plans to hold the last hearing on judicial appointments before the presidential election. Hatch's press secretary says she does not yet know whether Wattley's nomination will be among those discussed.

Rumors abound on what is holding up the process. Several well-placed Washington sources claim that Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, former Senate majority leader, has asked Hatch, also a Republican, to halt any more hearings on Clinton's judicial appointments. Dole has made Clinton's judicial appointees--whom Dole says are too liberal or poorly qualified--a campaign issue.

Congresswoman Johnson says she was told confidentially by a Republican senator that Phil Gramm was holding up Wattley's nomination. "I was told that Gramm said, 'When we get our president in, we'll fill that position.'"

Johnson says that Gramm has not admitted that to her, although she has asked. "He sent over to the committee that he had no objections to Wattley," Johnson says. "I am fully aware of how you can be on the record for something, but behind the scenes be against it."

"They are not the people we would have nominated, but we have no objections to Wattley or Schattman," says Larry Neal, press secretary to Sen. Gramm.

Meanwhile, Wattley waits. "Clearly, when you are nominated in a presidential-election year, you have to anticipate some possible impact upon your confirmation. But I remain cautiously optimistic."

Johnson isn't nearly as sanguine. "To take so long on this process--I think it's a miscarriage of justice," she says. "I think they are totally ignoring the meaningfulness of the process by politicizing this process in a way that should never have happened.

"Cheryl has more support on both sides, more letters of support than anyone," says Johnson. "They can't come up with an issue, so they're just going to slow the process down. It's very frustrating. I lie awake at night thinking of what more I can do."

Even if the Senate Judiciary Committee considers Wattley's nomination in the coming weeks, chances are the earliest the Senate would vote on her appointment would be next January--provided Clinton is re-elected. If a new party captures the White House, the whole process starts over again.

 
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