Search's focus shifts back to D.C. judge Wald was first choice of Clinton

January 23, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's reopened search for an attorney general reportedly turned back yesterday toward his original first choice -- federal appeals Judge Patricia M. Wald -- and the exploration of a way to get her to say yes this time.

Details of the new search are known only to a handful of associates of the president. But a source closely connected to both the Justice Department transition staff and to Hillary Clinton's staff said that the initial focus will be on a short list of candidates previously considered -- a list on which Judge Wald still ranks the highest.

Judge Wald, a 64-year-old moderate-to-liberal jurist here, turned down an overture made to her in December and let it be known then that she wanted to stay on the bench, partly to preserve her pension rights.

It is not certain, however, that that was a decisive reason for her refusal. Individuals who claim to know her situation contend that a new approach might well persuade her to change her mind.

Although it was not known until recently, Judge Wald was described as miffed that Mr. Clinton earlier had sent emissaries to seek her services in his Cabinet. Obviously aware of news accounts that she was at the top of the list for the job, one associate suggested that she was never fully persuaded of that.

Some who followed the process in December suggested that Clinton aides were so focused on her that they almost literally had to begin anew when she declined the overtures made to her. That search, apparently a hurried one in the days before Christmas, led to the choice of corporate lawyer Zoe Baird as the nominee.

Speculation here began to focus anew on Judge Wald in the wake of Ms. Baird's partly forced, partly voluntary withdrawal amid the furor over the violation of law by her and her husband in hiring illegal aliens as household employees.

The contrast between the two is vivid. The judge is a seasoned public official, with considerable experience in criminal justice, in contrast to Ms. Baird's brief period of government service and no experience in law enforcement affairs.

Judge Wald, a former assistant attorney general in the Carter administration Justice Department, has been on the appeals court here since 1979.

In her private life, Judge Wald wrote extensively on criminal law issues -- particularly on issues dealing with children who get in trouble with the law -- and on mental health and family law. Her resume of published articles runs to perhaps a dozen pages.

During Ms. Baird's Senate confirmation hearings, a number of Judiciary Committee members expressed concern about her ability to take on the leadership of the Justice Department as the nation's chief prosecutor with no background on criminal justice.

Committee member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters she had doubts about Ms. Baird on that score. Although Ms. Feinstein never took a public position for or against Ms. Baird's nomination, one committee source speculated last night that those doubts had not been resolved by the Baird hearings.

The short list of attorney general candidates that Mr. Clinton focused on before includes, besides Judge Wald, another experienced federal circuit judge, Amalya L. Kearse of New York City. It is not known whether Judge Kearse was ever approached directly about the job.

Another entry on that original list, Washington lawyer and feminist leader Brooksley Born, reportedly was vetoed by Mr. Clinton himself because she was the favorite of women's rights groups, whose pressure had offended him.

Hours before Ms. Baird's nomination was announced, feminist leaders here indicated that they had had quite strong assurances from within Mr. Clinton's circle that Ms. Born was the choice.

Late on the night before Ms. Baird's selection became public, Clinton aides moved to dampen that speculation.

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