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The President now has 85 vacancies to fill on the federal bench and 25 nominations waiting in the Senate for confirmation. Perhaps the two most prominent choices are James Buckley, 62, currently president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals and Berkeley Law Professor John Noonan, 59, for the Ninth Circuit in the Far West. The Administration has set up an elaborate process to examine candidates. Each receives a ten-page questionnaire. A daylong interview follows at the Justice Department. Further hurdles include review by a special Administration committee that meets each Thursday and approval by the Attorney General before a name goes to the President for a final decision. Previous Administrations have been nowhere near as thorough. "The review process is more intense," agrees former Justice Department Official Bruce Fein.
One result is an impressive level of competence. The American Bar Association (A.B.A.) has rated half of Reagan's first-term nominees to the district court exceptionally well qualified or well qualified, a level matched in the previous four presidencies only by the Carter Administration. At the appellate level he has chosen a number of stars. "John Noonan is one of the five smartest guys in the world," says one Justice official proudly. He is also the author of scholarly books on the history of bribery and the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception, though this clearly counts less than the fact that he is an articulate critic of abortion. "This is the most self-conscious ideological selection process since the first Roosevelt Administration," contends Sheldon Goldman, a University of Massachusetts professor who has closely examined the Reagan nominations. Conservative supporters of the President do not deny it. Patrick McGuigan of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation claims that the only question should be: "Does this guy comport with the President's ideology? If he doesn't, you don't nominate him."
The screening process is not that narrowly focused, protests Grover ("Rocky") Rees III, who is Meese's special assistant for judicial selection. "We don't have any litmus test." Perhaps not, but the checking procedure has derailed the nomination of the Justice Department's own Deputy Solicitor General, Andrew Frey, for, among other things, his support of an antihandgun group. It also disqualified Judith Whittaker, a highly rated Republican lawyer from Kansas City, for supporting the Equal Rights Amendment.