Judicial Show and Tell

Senators Gramm and Hutchinson dig deep into applicants' political pasts

If you aspire to be a federal judge or U.S. attorney in Texas, be prepared for an informational strip search -- one that goes far beyond past scrapes with the law, marital peccadilloes, delinquent taxes or professional qualifications.

The application questionnaire from the screening committee for Senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison requires contenders to reveal every detail of their adult political activities. In that respect, it makes an FBI background check seem like a telephone consumer survey.

Question 21 reads, "Please outline any voluntary or official participation you have had with any candidate for elective office (excluding your own campaign) and any campaign committee." It requests an itemized list of all contributions made to any candidate, campaign committee, political party or political action committee.

In short, the question amounts to political profiling, providing the senators with a road map to the beliefs and tendencies of the person under consideration. They then forward their recommendation to the White House.

Another question with teeth is 22: "Have you ever been a member of any organization (e.g. country club, service organization, fraternity, etc.) whose by-laws, policies, or activities could be construed as implicitly or explicitly discriminatory in any way?" If answered yes, the query asks what the candidate did to reverse or reduce the effects of the discriminatory policies.

Questionnaire responses are confidential, but with a 36-person screening committee poring over the documents, it didn't take long for some details to leak out.

Houston attorney Eric Nichols, who sources report is one of three candidates for U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, listed a political contribution of $400 to Democrat Paul Hobby in his race against Carol Keeton Rylanderfor state comptroller. Hobby and Nichols are both former assistant U.S. attorneys.

Making the cross-party contribution even more inflammatory, Rylander's campaign chairman was none other than Senator Gramm. The committee's other U.S. attorney recommendations are veteran assistant U.S. attorneys Mike Shelby and Jim Powers. Boosting prospects for Powers is the fact that he and Gramm have worked together on law enforcement projects in the past.

Nichols did not return an Insider call. Hobby replied by e-mail: "Eric Nichols would make an excellent U.S. attorney, and if he is damaged because of our friendship I would be terribly grieved."

Harris County Democratic Party chair Sue Schechter says she's amazed by Question 21 because of the near impossibility of anyone compiling an accurate list of political contributions over their lifetime and then swearing to it under oath.

"The real question is, 'What are your politics and do they fit ours?' That's what they're really asking," says Schechter. "And the minute they see that Paul Hobby contribution, I'm sure they'll say no!" It's sort of a witch-hunt within their own ranks."

Gramm spokesman Larry Neal denies the question is a political litmus test and contends it is designed to detect embarrassments that might come to light during Senate confirmation hearings.

"Would it make a difference to us if an applicant for a federal judgeship was a regular contributor to the David Duke campaign?" asks Neal, using the Ku Klux Klan sympathizer and former Louisiana gubernatorial candidate as an example. "Yeah, it might. It's the extremes that concern us."

When Bush announces his nominee for U.S. attorney here, we may get a better idea what Gramm considers extreme when it comes to political contributions. Court Couture

Women lawyers planning their wardrobes for Houston federal court might consider the notes from a recent managerial meeting of the jurists here. On the subject of women wearing pantsuits in court, several judges had fashion statements to make.

According to a memo, Judge Melinda Harmon, a Republican appointee, "does not like women to wear pants in court."

Judge Vanessa Gilmore, a Democrat and a stylish dresser to boot, opined that pants were fine on female lawyers "as long as they are part of a pantsuit and that the pants and suit are the same color."

Remember that, ladies: Skirts for Melinda, matching tops and bottoms for Vanessa.

Judging by the lack of further comment in the memo, it would seem the male judges had the wisdom to keep their mouths shut on the subject.

 
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