Monday, September 9, 2002
WASHINGTON - A candidate for a federal judgeship being pushed
by Sen. Orrin Hatch is worrying environmentalists, who say
the Utah Republican is packing two little-known courts with
Hatch is promoting a member of his Judiciary Committee staff,
Lawrence Block, for the Court of Federal Claims, which handles
claims for damages against the U.S. government. Many of its
cases involve government "takings" of private property,
an issue Block has worked on for eight years.
If confirmed, Block would be the fourth alumnus of Hatch's
Senate staff to join that court or the Court of Appeals for
the Federal Circuit, which handles appeals from the claims
court. There are 24 judges on those two courts.
Hatch spokeswoman Margarita Tapia says the charge that he
is trying to influence the court's rulings through nominations
is "extremely offensive" and politically motivated,
with "no basis in reality."
The Constitution's Fifth Amendment says private property may
not be taken for public use "without just compensation."
Land taken for a highway is an example. Some conservatives
say owners also should be paid when land development is constrained
by such things as wetlands or endangered species. That could
raise the cost of environmental regulation and efforts to
Hatch has been at the forefront of the push to broaden property
rights. He proposed legislation in the mid-1990s that would
have expanded the concept of takings to include environmental
regulations. Block was his chief aide in that effort. Environmentalists
say when the legislative push stalled, Hatch focused on the
It is an unprecedented concentration of judges from a single
source, and evidence of a conservative campaign "to use
the claims court to advance an extreme interpretation of the
Constitution," says Doug Kendall, director of the Community
Rights Counsel, an environmental law group.
The fight over Block is part of a long-standing battle over
the ideology of judges who have lifetime appointments. President
Bush's slate of nominees is dominated by conservatives. That
has raised the suspicions of Senate Democrats, whose majority
gives them power over confirmations. But it appears unlikely
that Block will be rejected like two other Bush nominees.
At his confirmation hearing last month, Block said that as
a judge he would leave behind positions on takings he promoted
as Hatch's aide. Hatch said Block will "follow the law
regardless of his personal views." But opponents are
Sheldon Goldman, a political scientist at the University of
Massachusetts at Amherst, says Hatch is practicing patronage
politics. "This is an opportunity to try to exert influence,
and Hatch has made the most of it," Goldman says. "It
is hard to quarrel with that."
For a related article published in The Salt Lake Tribune
on September 14, 2002, click here.