- The eight federal judges appointed by President Clinton
to the U.S. District Court in Washington meet privately every month in
closed-door sessions that other jurists believe are improper and call into
question the court's impartiality.
- "I cannot imagine any legitimate reason for them
to meet together once a month, even socially," said one veteran courthouse
official familiar with the sessions.
- "It's not only in bad taste, it certainly has the
appearance of impropriety. It's hard to imagine any rationale for these
- Another court official said they "reek with impropriety."
- Concern among courthouse officials about the meetings,
which are described in e-mail addressed monthly to each of the eight judges,
comes at a time that Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson is
being publicly criticized for selectively assigning criminal cases against
friends and associates of Mr. Clinton's to judges the president has appointed.
- None of the eight Clinton-appointed judges, all of whom
were named to the bench between 1994 to 1998, would comment on the meetings
or their content.
- "I have no comment to make on these matters,"
said U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr., the only one of the eight
who personally answered a telephone call. A spokeswoman for Judge Richard
W. Roberts returned a call but said only that the judge "declined
- Four judges appointed by other presidents, both Republican
and Democrat, said the meetings have been taking place for some time, although
specific topics are not known. They question the propriety of the sessions
and lament what they described as the "loss of collegiality"
when the judges fail to come together as a group -- which the others do
- "The Clinton appointees have confirmed that they
meet together, and we know they do, but where they go and what they discuss
I just don't know," said one judge. "But a very important part
of what we do here is our collegiality. We all come with political viewpoints
but we try to leave politics behind. Unfortunately, the Clinton appointees
have gone off on their own."
- The nature of the isolation, another judge said, was
punctuated by an e-mail message sent to all of the judges inviting them
to a birthday party for U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina, a 1994 Clinton
appointee. The message asked the judges to guess Judge Urbina's age for
a prize but excluded members of the "Magnificent Seven" -- a
name the first seven Clinton appointees had used to describe their group
before Judge Roberts' 1998 appointment.
- There are 23 judges at the federal courthouse, including
the eight named by Mr. Clinton. Five were appointed by President Carter
and five by President Reagan. Four were named by President Johnson and
one was picked by President Nixon. None of the other judges hold separate
meetings, courthouse sources said.
- Questions of impropriety at the courthouse have drawn
the attention of the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Orrin
G. Hatch, Utah Republican, is considering whether to begin an investigation
or call for hearings to resolve the issue.
- During a confirmation hearing yesterday for two Justice
Department officials, Mr. Hatch described as "deeply troubling"
reports that Judge Johnson had bypassed the court's random case assignment
procedures "by taking the unusual step of handpicking" judges
appointed by Mr. Clinton to hear cases involving Webster L. Hubbell and
Charles Yah Lin Trie.
- "Even if deviations from the district court's random
case assignment procedures are technically permitted by local rule, I share
the concern that has been expressed by other judges on the court that these
assignments will damage the public's confidence that these cases were impartially
adjudicated," he said.
- Committee member Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican,
echoed Mr. Hatch's concerns, adding that as a former prosecutor he was
"stunned" by the Johnson assignments.
- He said it "might be necessary" for the committee
to investigate the matter to restore the public's confidence.
- On Tuesday, Judge Johnson defended her decision not to
follow the court's traditional random-assignment process when she assigned
the Hubbell and Trie cases to U.S. District Judges Paul L. Friedman and
James Robertson --both Clinton appointees.
- She said the cases were assigned to "highly capable
federal judges" and that "politics was not and is never a factor
in our case assignments."
- She said the chief judge has the right to assign "protracted
and complex cases" when it is deemed necessary, noting that "my
predecessors and I have used this assignment system to enable our court
to expeditiously handle high-profile criminal cases with their unique demands
on judicial resources."
- "It is the responsibility of the chief judge to
move the docket as expeditiously as possible. That is all that was intended
by these assignments," the judge said.
- Some judges questioned whether the Hubbell and Trie cases,
both of which ended in plea agreements, could be considered protracted
or complex. They said several high-profile and lengthy trials have been
assigned through the random-selection process.
- Judge Friedman, who has declined comment on the matter,
threw out several charges against Trie brought by the Justice Department's
campaign finance task force. Trie later pleaded guilty when the rulings
were overturned by the federal appeals court.
- Judge Robertson was overturned in June when the appeals
court reinstated a felony charge against Hubbell for making false statements
to conceal his work on a fraudulent Arkansas land project. The court said
the judge erred when he dismissed the first count of a 15-count indictment
brought by Kenneth W. Starr.