San Diego Union Tribune

February 26, 2004

Opinions far apart on judicial nominee
Benitez's demeanor at heart of dispute

By JOE CANTLUPE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON The Senate Judiciary Committee will recommend that Roger Benitez be confirmed as a federal judge in San Diego despite the American Bar Association's sharp criticism of his demeanor, committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said yesterday.

Once the committee officially approves the nomination, it will go to the full Senate for a vote.

Hatch, R-Utah, made his comments after a hearing that painted two distinctly different portraits of Benitez, 53, a magistrate judge in El Centro.

Judges in San Diego and many of Benitez's colleagues in El Centro hailed the Cuban-born jurist as a man who is living the American dream and is an exceptional judge.

Among his supporters is Marilyn Huff, chief judge of U.S. District Court in San Diego, who flew to Washington and sat with Benitez and his family at the hearing.

Benitez possesses the "skills and judicial temperament to help our court with its heavy caseload," Huff said.

But Benitez was blasted by Richard Macias, an investigator for the American Bar Association, who said he has never received so many negative comments about a judicial nominee in the 10 years he has been doing background checks. The ABA gave Benitez, nominated for the federal bench by President Bush 10 months ago, a "not qualified" rating because of his courtroom demeanor.

"All too frequently while on the bench, Judge Benitez is arrogant, pompous, condescending, impatient, short-tempered, rude, insulting, bullying, unnecessarily mean, and altogether lacking in people skills," said Macias, who interviewed more than 60 judges and lawyers.

The ABA, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that counts 400,000 lawyers as members, has appraised presidential nominees to the U.S. District, appellate and Supreme courts since 1948. Some conservative lawyers say the organization has a liberal bent, but the ABA denies the claim. Four judicial nominees have received not-qualified ratings during the first three years of the Bush administration. That compares with four under Bill Clinton, a Democrat; none under Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, a Republican; one under Ronald Reagan, a Republican; and five under Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.

Hatch and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., expressed concern about the ABA's criticisms. But they said evidence provided by other legal sources, including Huff, bolstered their support of Benitez.

"Sometimes the ABA makes mistakes," Hatch said. He described Benitez as having the "legal experience, ability, aptitude, character, integrity and temperament" to serve as a federal judge.

Feinstein said the American Trial Lawyers Association contacted dozens of lawyers and that they "could not come up with anything" that should derail Benitez's nomination. California's bipartisan judicial merit selection committee, which evaluates nominees to the courts, also supported Benitez, she said.

The San Diego court has one of the highest caseloads in the nation, in part because of its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border. Congress authorized five more judges last year, and another five have been recommended by a judicial committee.

Huff described Benitez as the "embodiment of the American dream."

Benitez was born in Havana and was sent by his parents to Miami when he was a boy. He graduated from San Diego State University and Western State University School of Law. He practiced law in Imperial County from 1997 to 2001, and he has served as a federal magistrate in El Centro since 2001.

Benitez said the ABA's criticism may stem from his position as the sole magistrate in El Centro, 120 miles east of San Diego. As magistrate, he handled 1,494 cases more than the 10 magistrates in Northern California combined, Huff said.

"We have a high-volume court that we operate in El Centro," Benitez said. "Sometimes we don't have the liberty to be as relaxed, as accommodating as we might be. I strive to be fair and courteous. I try my best to be the best person I can be, (but) sometimes that may not be good enough.

"I know the ABA has a difficult task at hand. Perhaps some attorneys who do not appear regularly in my court don't know me as well. Maybe geography is a factor."

Staff writer Marisa Taylor contributed to this report.