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Contentious Federal Judicial Nominations, State Court Elections Focus of New ABA President; Organizes Court Efforts, Calls for Lawyers to Help with Elections

Brad Carr
Alabama State Bar
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Montgomery, Ala., Aug. 12, 2008 – Citing a nomination and confirmation process for federal judges that "too often involves lengthy, partisan conflict and delay," American Bar Association President H. Thomas Wells Jr. strongly backed prospective association policy that offers new ways to address the problem.

The proposed ABA policy emphasizes four approaches to creating a faster, less conflict-ridden method of appointment, beginning with a call for senators to establish bipartisan commissions in their states to evaluate the qualifications of prospective nominees to the U.S. District Courts. It also suggests similar commissions for the U.S. Courts of Appeals.

The commissions would recommend possible nominees whom the senators could suggest for the President's consideration, recognizing that any nominating decision ultimately belongs to the President.

'This flexible approach does not outline particular steps or procedures to follow," Wells said. "That's best accomplished by the senators themselves."

The policy also suggests that the administration use a consultative process involving home state senators of both parties and Senate leadership before deciding on nominees. As Wells explained, "This will help avoid battles whose costs outweigh their benefits to the President, the Senate, the nominees and the courts on which they may serve."

The ABA is also emphasizing appropriate ways to shorten what has been a lengthy process, and ensure courts operate at full strength. Wells noted that the ABA was pressing the measures now, before a new Congress and executive branch take office, so that the measures could be fully and fairly considered by all candidates.

"All of our leaders want our court system to remain the envy of the world and be filled with the best and brightest legal minds our country has to offer," said Wells. "We hope to bridge the partisan divide that has grown over many years and offer government a way forward."

Sandra Day O'Connor to Assist Wells with State Court Effort

Wells is also turning his attention to the problems of state courts and will organize a Fair and Impartial State Courts summit in May 2009 that will devise new approaches to reducing the effects of what he termed "big money and fiery rhetoric" in state judicial campaigns, as well as exploring other threats to fair and impartial state courts. The summit will involve leaders from a variety of disciplines including the legal profession.

Wells noted that a state supreme court race during the last election cycle in his own state of Alabama cost more than $7 million. "Frankly, that's an obscene amount of money, and Alabama is not alone. In too many states judicial elections have become dysfunctional, distasteful affairs." Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has agreed to chair the summit.

Voting Rights and Responsibilities Also a Priority

Wells also noted that he takes office with less than 90 days until the national elections, and unveiled an ABA-developed Web site designed to inform the public and lawyers about voter rights and responsibilities.  The site is: "I urge lawyers nationwide to think about how they can make a difference in their community in this upcoming election," Wells said. 

Wells, 56, was chair of the ABA's House of Delegates from 2002 to 2004. He is co-chair of the ABA's Special Committee on Disaster Response, which was commissioned after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. From 1999 to 2000 Wells was chair of the Section of Litigation.  He also has been a member of the ABA's Commission on the American Jury and the ABA Commission on the Future of the Legal Profession. Wells is a founding member of Maynard, Cooper & Gale, a 160-lawyer firm with offices in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama. He is a litigator, with emphasis on administrative, regulatory, environmental, toxic tort and products liability law.

He lives in Birmingham with his wife, Jan. The couple's two children, Lynlee Wells Palmer and H. Thomas "Trey" Wells III, also work as lawyers in Birmingham. 
Wells would be the ABA's third president from the state of Alabama. Henry Upson Sims, of Birmingham, was ABA president from 1929-30, and N. Lee Cooper, who is a partner with Wells at Maynard, Cooper & Gale, was president from 1996-97.

With more than 413,000 members, the American Bar Association is the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world.