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Sotomayor Unanimously Receives Top ABA Rating

The American Bar Association has given Sonia Sotomayor its highest rating in a unanimous vote as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to begin confirmation hearings next week.  The ABA's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary rated Sotomayor "well qualified" to serve on the Supreme Court in a letter to White House attorney Greg Craig today. 

The ABA bases its ratings on a nominee's professional competence, integrity and judicial temperament.  In order to assess these qualities, each member of the ABA committee, which consists of 15 members, conducts interviews with people in the judicial circuit they represent who has knowledge concerning the professional qualifications of the candidate.
In addition, a team or teams of law professors examines the candidate's writings for "quality, clarity, knowledge of the law and analytical ability" and reports their findings to the committee.

Finally, a team of lawyers with Supreme Court experience - usually former Supreme Court clerks, former members of the Solicitor General's office, or other attorneys with experience arguing before the Supreme Court - also examines the candidate's legal writings and reports back to the committee.

The most recent additions to the court, going back to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have all received "well qualified" ratings, although the ABA does not publish ratings for Justices going back beyond that. 

The ABA committee only begins its analysis of Supreme Court nominees after the White House has announced the nomination.  Typically, however, the White House sends over a list of federal judicial nominees to the lower courts for the ABA to vet before the nomination process begins.  This practice began in 1953, during the early years of the Eisenhower administration. 

President George W. Bush discontinued the practice in 2001, claiming that the tradition of submitting judicial selections for vetting to the ABA alone constituted preferential treatment.  Many commentators felt that the Bush decision arose out of a perception that the ABA favored left-leaning jurists over conservative ones.  Indeed, a study released earlier this year purported to show that the ABA process tended to disfavor conservative jurists.

The ABA denies any bias or political considerations, however.  The Obama administration resumed the vetting practice in March, 2009.  In the interim, the committee had continued to craft its judicial ratings after the nominations were made public, and the Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to proceed with nominations until the ABA had released them. 

In defense of its impartiality, the ABA quotes the following stats:

Since 1960, the ABA evaluated well over 2,000 individuals who were formally nominated by the past ten Presidents, from President Kennedy through President George W. Bush. All but 33 were rated either "qualified" or "well qualified." Of the 33 nominees the Committee found "not qualified," 23 were nominees of Democratic Presidents and 10 were nominees of Republican Presidents.
See Also:
ABA Panel Unanimously Rates Sotomayor 'Well Qualified' (WSJ Washington Wire)
ABA Committee Finds Sotomayor Well-Qualified in Unanimous Vote (ABA Journal)
Sotomayor Gets ABA's Highest Rating, Unanimously (Huffington Post)
ABA Committee Gives Sotomayor Top Rating (Blog of Legal Times)