Clinton chooses female judge: President quizzed on 'zig-zag' style

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AFTER a three-month search, and yet another last-minute 'Nannygate' scare, President Bill Clinton yesterday finally chose Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a widely respected and moderate federal appeals judge here, to be the first nominee of a Democratic President to the Supreme Court in a quarter of a century.

But the occasion was marred by a spat between Mr Clinton and a journalist, showing how raw are his nerves after the barrage of criticism at his recent performance.

A short press conference had been planned after the announcement. But it ended with the first question, about the 'zig-zag quality' of his decision-making style. 'How you could ask a question like that is just beyond me,' retorted a visibly furious Mr Clinton, before stalking away from the microphone.

The 60-year-old Ms Ginsburg had been one of the names originally canvassed when Justice Byron White announced in March that he would be stepping down at the end of the Court's summer term next month. But she only emerged as front-runner over the weekend, after news reports that the previous favourite, Massachusetts appeals judge Stephen Breyer, had failed to pay social security taxes for a part-time cleaning woman.

At that point, caution seems again to have got the better of a President fearful of a repeat of the fiasco of Zoe Baird, his first nominee for Attorney-General, who came to grief after it transpired she had knowingly failed to pay taxes on a couple of illegal Peruvian immigrants she employed as live-in domestic staff. Mr Breyer's sin was committed in ignorance. But a jumpy White House was in no mood to take further risks.

Assuming Ms Ginsburg's cupboard contains no skeletons - be they judicial or domestic - her confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee seems assured, possibly before Congress' summer recess on August. Her views are safely in the centre, and key Republicans on the Committee indicated yesterday they had no objections.

Although Ms Ginsburg was a strong and early supporter for women's rights and is broadly pro-choice, she has questioned the legal basis of the benchmark 1973 Roe vs Wade Supreme Court judgement which enshrines the right of a woman to have an abortion.

Doubts over the President's handling of the affair may linger. The selection of Ms Ginsburg took an inordinate 89 days, during which - according to the President yesterday - 'more than 40' potential nominees were considered.

The delay, however, is being taken less as evidence of thoroughness than of Mr Clinton's apparent inability to make up his mind until the eleventh hour and his suspected tendency to yield to outside pressure.