Bush to Press Hawaii Nominee Panned by ABA

Posted February 14, 2003 at 5:59pm

The White House and Justice Department are vowing to press the Senate to confirm a U.S. District Court nominee from Hawaii who has drawn the first unanimous “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association since the Reagan administration.

Administration officials insist the nominee, Frederick “Fritz” Rohlfing III, a lawyer and businessman, is well-suited to the bench, in spite of the unequivocal thumbs-down from the ABA’s judicial ratings committee.

“We are confident that once confirmed [Rohlfing] will make an excellent District Court judge,” White House spokeswoman Ashley Snee said.

A senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, echoed the White House. “We will support his nomination fully,” the official said.

In fact, the circumstances surrounding the nomination would seem sufficiently quixotic to justify any number of possible outcomes.

While the ABA was unanimous in its view that Rohlfing is unfit for the bench, the Hawaii State Bar Association, which also reviewed the nomination, concluded precisely the opposite — that Rohlfing is well-qualified to serve.

“I don’t know the basis for the ABA rating,” Hawaii bar association President-elect Dale Lee said in an interview.

Lee said the Hawaii bar uses virtually the same criteria as the ABA in evaluating nominees for the bench.

Carol Dinkins, a Houston lawyer who chairs the ABA’s standing committee on federal judiciary, refused to comment specifically on the Rohlfing nomination, saying the ABA panel does not disclose information from its evaluations unless asked to do so by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

At its outset, the Bush administration indicated that it would no longer give weight to ABA ratings in making its judicial selections — a reflection of the view among some conservatives that the ABA process has been politicized.

Nevertheless, the ABA’s unanimous disapproval of Rohlfing presents the White House with a dilemma. It can withdraw the nomination and risk indirectly validating the ABA process, or it can risk the possibility that the rating from the bar organization will sour even Republicans — not to mention Rohlfing’s home-state Senators — on the selection.

Through his office, Hawaii’s senior Senator, Daniel Inouye (D), has indicated that he will oppose the nomination in the wake of the ABA’s decision. Just last year, Inouye indicated that he would likely support the nomination, pending an FBI background check and the Hawaii bar’s review.

“[A]s soon as I get word from them, I will tell the [Judiciary] committee to proceed expeditiously,” Inouye told The Honolulu Advertiser in January 2001, when President Bush first nominated Rohlfing.

In voicing his support last year, Inouye cited, among other things, his friendship with Rohlfing’s father, a former GOP state legislator.

A spokesman for Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) said last week it was “premature” to comment on the ABA evaluation. The spokesman said Akaka wants to review “all the materials” around the Rohlfing nomination before making any decisions.

A Judiciary spokeswoman, Margarita Tapia, declined to comment specifically on the Rohlfing nomination, saying only that committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is committed to moving Bush’s nominees through the committee speedily. A senior aide to the committee’s Democrats said much will depend on Inouye and Akaka.

To be sure, Rohlfing is not the first Bush nominee to come before the committee with a rating of “not qualified” from the ABA. Judiciary unanimously approved District Court nominee David Bunning last year despite the negative evaluation he received.

However, the ABA was not unanimous in its determination about Bunning, and the nominee also had an ace in the hole: His father is Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.).

Rohlfing, 45, is a principal in the Honolulu law firm Rohlfing & Stone. His practice has concentrated on corporate law, real estate and personal injury cases. He has also been chief attorney for state House Republicans in Hawaii, and ran a company that operated the Aloha and Oahu bowls in college football.