Rush to Judges

The Republican balance in the U.S. Senate depends on the uncertain heartbeats of aging South Carolinian Strom Thurmond, so the George W. Bush administration is hurrying to get its judicial ducks lined up while there's still a one-vote majority for confirmations.

Last week Bush nominated 11 appellate judges -- including hyperconservative Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owens. But there is still a passel of district judgeships to fill.

Two of those are South Texas benches, and a flock of judicial wanna-bes interviewed for the job at the Federal Building in Houston two weeks ago. Candidates from the local state judiciary include the 215th District's Levi Benton, an African-American jurist appointed by Bush when he was governor, and the 269th's John Wooldridge. But smart money is betting on two candidates who present something old and something new.

The old is a judicial nominee of Bush's dad in 1992. Andy S. Hanen, of the law firm of Hanen, Alexander, Johnson & Spalding, was prepared to take the Brownsville federal bench when Bill Clinton's victory cleaned the slate. Hanen lives in River Oaks but is ready to become a shuttle judge if appointed.

The other candidate with a bullet is 36-year-old Randy Crane of McAllen, a member of the South Texas law firm of Atlas & Hall. Crane, an honors graduate of the University of Texas law school, is half Hispanic. His mother, whose surname is Barrera, is a second-generation Mexican- American. Sources cite the influence of the firm's founder Morris Atlas -- the father-in-law of federal Judge Nancy Atlas and the man known in legal circles as "Mr. South Texas" -- as a factor in the buzz behind Crane's judicial application.

Because of the rush to get judges safely confirmed, the selection of U.S. attorney for Texas's Southern District is on the back burner. One surprise name circulating in GOP circles as a strong contender is Eric Roy Nichols. He's a 38-year-old former assistant U.S. attorney and a partner in the civil law firm of Beck, Redden & Secrest.

One colleague expressed surprise that Nichols would be seeking public service, since he hasn't had time to make much money as a lawyer and has to support quadruplets, two boys and two girls. Nichols declined comment, but a friend confirms the lawyer is aggressively pursuing the top prosecutor job -- and can afford to because he has family money to fall back on.

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