Also Tuesday, the Judicial Conference of the United States called for the creation of 54 new judgeships to help handle the massive backlog in the federal courts.
The conference is the policy-making body of the U.S. courts, and met Tuesday in the Supreme Court for its biannual meeting. The conference is made up of representative judges from each of the 13 U.S. circuits, and led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
U.S. District Judge Charles Haden said Ashcroft and the Justice Department appear to be on board with the request.
"We believe the attorney general is supporting the request at 54," said Haden, who is the chief U.S. district judge in the Southern District of West Virginia.
The 54 judgeships -- six permanent and four temporary on the courts of appeals, and 23 permanent and 21 temporary for the district courts -- would be in addition to the 77 vacancies now in the federal judiciary.
The current reauthorization legislation in Congress supports only about nine new judgeships, Haden said, but Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and ranking member Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are believed to support the creation of about 36 new judgeships.
In his appearance earlier outside the Supreme Court, Ashcroft particularly singled out Miguel Estrada, Bush's controversial nominee for the powerful U.S. appeals court in Washington.
Democrats and liberal groups have targeted Estrada as being far too conservative for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, but Ashcroft said, "He is superbly qualified."
The federal appeals court in Washington is second only to the Supreme Court in influence. The appeals court hears most challenges to federal agency action.
Estrada, a respected attorney and Republican political operative, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday for a confirmation hearing.
"This week Miguel Estrada will receive a hearing 506 days after he was nominated," Ashcroft said, pointing out that the nominee has been endorsed by a Clinton solicitor general, Seth Waxman, and former Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff, Ron Klain.
"I strongly urge the Senate to confirm Miguel Estrada to be the first Hispanic on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals," Ashcroft said.
Some Hispanic groups have campaigned against Estrada's nomination. The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in particular has said that Estrada, a Honduras native from a privileged background, is out of touch with most Hispanics.
Estrada's defenders respond by saying that his is an American success story, and he has been rated "well-qualified" by the American Bar Association.
Ashcroft made his comments after addressing the Judicial Conference of the United States in a closed meeting inside the Supreme Court.
"There is a crisis in the federal judiciary," Ashcroft told the conference in prepared remarks. "President Bush has nominated judges at a record pace and yet the active membership of the federal judiciary is shrinking as the rate of retirement among judges outpaces the Senate's current rate of confirmations. And this crisis of existing court vacancies is exacerbated by the by the inadequate number of federal judgeships."
Outside the court after his speech, the attorney general said there is "a severe crisis plaguing the federal courts."
He pointed out that there are 77 vacancies in the courts, 10 more than when Congress adjourned in 2000. Thirty of the judgeships have been vacant so long they have been declared "judicial emergencies."
Ashcroft's staff released statistics showing President Bill Clinton had 90 percent of his judicial nominees confirmed during the first two years in office, while Bush has had only 61 percent confirmed during his first two years.
However, Clinton enjoyed a Democratic majority during his first two years in office. Confirmations of judicial nominees slowed down to a crawl for most of the rest of his two terms.
Ashcroft, who as a senator led the fight to derail the Clinton nomination of Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White to the federal court in 1999, took no questions after making his statement in support of Estrada.
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