WASHINGTON -- Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., criticized the American Bar Association on Thursday, saying it should "get a new life" in how it rates prospective federal judges, after one of his choices got a mixed review.
In remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Reid said the bar association's ratings board puts too much weight on whether judicial nominees have prior bench experience and overlooks "real world" qualifications.
Reid expanded his criticism to include the Supreme Court, whose makeup, he said, consists of "people who have never seen the outside world."
"I have asked President (Barack) Obama, 'Let's get somebody on the court that has not been a judge.' They need to do more than thinking of themselves as these people who walk around in these robes in these fancy chambers."
Reid was set off by the ABA's rating of Las Vegas attorney Gloria Navarro, who also appeared before the Senate committee as his choice and Obama's nominee to become a U.S. district judge in Nevada.
According to the association's 15-member Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, a "substantial majority," consisting of 10 to 13 members, rated Navarro "qualified," while a minority rated her "not qualified."
The bar shares its ratings in an advisory capacity with the White House and the Senate, which votes on the nominees.
The committee considers a nominee's "professional competence, integrity and judicial temperament." It rates each nominee as "well qualified," "qualified," or "not qualified."
Navarro, 42, has been in private practice, has been a public defender and currently is chief deputy district attorney in the civil division of the Clark County district attorney's office.
Several attorneys and academics who examined Navarro's resume speculated that her lack of experience as a judge may have been the reason some ABA reviewers rated her "not qualified" for the federal bench.
Reid told the Judiciary Committee it was "upsetting to me" that Navarro "is not rated as high as she should be rated."
"If they base their rating on people having judicial experience, that would mean that, according to them, every person that seeks a seat on the bench has to have judicial experience. Maybe a municipal court judge, maybe a justice of the peace.
"I just cannot accept that," Reid said, touting Navarro as an attorney who has pursued political corruption cases, defended a person who had been convicted of murder, and has had to pursue clients to pay their bills.
"I think the ABA should get a new life and start looking at people for how they are qualified and not whether they have judicial experience," Reid said.
"This woman will be a terrific judge," he said of Navarro. "She has had experience in the real world of government, the real world of law."
It appeared to be the first time Reid has expressed unhappiness publicly with the ABA rating system. On at least two other occasions he referenced them in cases where they backed him up on specific nominees.
In a May 2006 speech opposing Brett Kavanaugh for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Reid noted the ABA had lowered its rating on the nominee. In a May 2000 interview with the Review-Journal, Reid cited the ABA as approving his choice of then U.S. Magistrate Roger Hunt for a federal judgeship.
Reid believes "the ABA rating can be helpful but it isn't the final word," his spokesman Jon Summers said Thursday. "You have to look at why the ABA gave the rating and consider additional factors such as the recommendations of the people they have worked with."
Navarro would be the first Hispanic woman to serve as a federal judge in Nevada. She would replace Brian Sandoval, who resigned the lifetime appointment last year and is running for governor.
A spokeswoman for the Judiciary Committee said senators have a week to ask follow-up questions in writing. After that, the committee will schedule a confirmation vote.
The Nevadan appeared Thursday before the committee alongside five other nominees for judgeships in Indiana, California and Missouri.
Navarro had waited out the snowstorm that crippled Capitol Hill this week, as the confirmation meeting was postponed a day because of the weather.
She appeared alone, explaining her husband, Clark County chief deputy district attorney Brian Rutledge, their three sons, her mother and several friends were unable to make it.
"We'll send them a DVD," joked Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
During her testimony, Navarro appeared ready for a question about her experience, which came from Klobuchar.
Navarro said she has practiced both in federal and state courts, handled both civil and criminal cases, has represented plaintiffs and defendants and has been both in private practice and as a public servant.
"The experiences have given me the opportunity to appear before many different judges with many different styles," she said. "I have also had the opportunity to become familiar with many different rules and procedures in different courts. Having that broad range of experience definitely will build a solid foundation for a successful judicial career."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.