Despite President Bush’s campaign pledge to heal the country’s divisions over Clinton-era controversies, the administration has been doling out top legal posts to former deputies of Kenneth Starr and other conservative lawyers who helped fuel the Clinton impeachment effort.
The president is reportedly set to offer a seat on the nation’s second most important court to Associate White House Counsel Brett Kavanaugh, an author of the “Starr Report” on President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Kavanaugh, who would be at least the fourth Starr deputy to be nominated to the federal bench, is being criticized by liberal groups for what they describe as his past support for “ultra-conservative legal causes” and efforts to promote Bush’s “most controversial judicial nominees.”
Another Starr deputy, Karin Immergut, has been tapped by Bush to fill the post of U.S. attorney in Oregon. A former special prosecutor in Starr’s office, Immergut questioned Monica Lewinsky under oath about her blue dress and other intimate details of her relationship with Clinton.
In addition to nominating former Starr deputies to federal posts, Bush has filled other top legal positions with right-wing lawyers who helped organize private lawsuits and media attacks against Clinton and aided the independent counsel’s investigation. Liberal critics argue that these lawyers, including the current solicitor general, Theodore Olson, were motivated by more than an intense dislike for Clinton — they also wanted to pave the way for a conservative revolution in the courts.
“Clearly their goal was not just to unseat the president,” said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a coalition of more than 60 organizations that often opposes conservative judicial nominees. “They thought if they forced Clinton out of office, they would be able to dismantle not only a presidency, but the framework that has been established since the New Deal to protect workers, consumers, the environment and women.”
Now, liberal observers say, Bush is paying back conservative lawyers who worked to bring down Clinton and offering them a chance to carry out their judicial agenda.
“They are nominating Brett Kavanaugh because of the very influential role he played on the Starr investigation,” Aron said. “It’s a ‘thank you’ for his role in writing the Starr report. But that’s a qualification which shows an incredible degree of partisanship and lack of judicial temperament. Clearly you want judges who will be open-minded and fair and able to base decision-making on the merits rather than a political viewpoint. Kavanaugh’s role as an aggressive advocate working with Ken Starr demonstrates a lack of qualification for a judgeship.”
Bush has already secured federal judgeships for two former members of the independent prosecutor’s office, John Bates and Amy St. Eve. The Senate has yet to decide on the nomination of another Starr lieutenant, Steven Colloton, tapped by Bush for a seat on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
Several observers have argued that judicial nominees should not be deemed partisan simply because they worked in the independent counsel’s office or represented conservative clients. But liberal critics counter that at least two of Starr’s deputies, Kavanaugh and Bates, have displayed inconsistencies that reveal a political bias.
As a prosecutor in Starr’s office, Bates successfully argued that the White House had to turn over documents related to then-first lady Hillary Clinton. Yet, after Bush successfully nominated him to a seat on the appeals court in Washington, Bates ruled that the General Accounting Office of Congress did not have the right to demand that Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force turn over records of its closed-door meetings. The decision was criticized by liberals, including Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
“When that guy was working for Ken Starr, he wanted to go open the dresser drawers of the White House,” said Leahy, in an interview with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. “I guess it’s a lot different when it’s a Republican vice president.”
Aron offered a similar criticism of Kavanaugh, who is up for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and co-wrote Starr’s report to the House of Representatives. “As a member of Starr’s Office of Independent Counsel, he repeatedly argued that the White House must turn over documents to investigators,” Aron said in a statement. “However, since joining the White House, Kavanaugh has reversed himself and written regulations to keep presidential records secret.”
Conservative lawyers have defended Bates and Kavanaugh, arguing that during the Bush years they were arguing for executive privilege in civil cases, while as Starr deputies they were conducting criminal investigations.
Liberal activists are starting to focus on Colloton, currently the U.S. attorney for Iowa’s Southern District. Aron told the Forward that she was not yet prepared to comment on Colloton’s nomination, but added that her organization would probably be releasing a report on him soon.
According to one Capitol Hill staffer, the FBI did not turn up any “red flags” during its recently completed background check of Colloton, but he has yet to receive the formal endorsement of Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat. The Senate has historically refused to take up any judicial nomination until the candidate receives the support of both senators from his home state.
Harkin’s spokeswoman, Allison Dobson, said that the senator was set to begin reviewing the nomination now that the FBI has completed its background check. All aspects of Colloton’s career will be under consideration, including his work for Starr, Dobson said.