Wagner in the Spotlight ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

February 12, 1993

'TC The unexpectedly controversial nomination of former Del. John S. Arnick to a Baltimore County judgeship has many state lawmakers squirming, but no one is on the hot seat more than Sen. Michael J. Wagner of Ferndale. Suddenly, he's the Joe Biden of the Maryland Senate.

As chairman of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, Senator Wagner is in the distinctly uncomfortable position of directing hearings against a respected legislator he knows and likes, but who has been accused of some horrendous behavior: making racist jokes, vulgar remarks and unwanted sexual advances toward women. What was supposed to have been a routine confirmation by a low-level committee has turned into a test of integrity in the glare of statewide attention. Can Senator Wagner and his 18 committee members conduct an impartial hearing when the subject is one of their own?

During the Clarence Thomas hearings, to which this controversy is inevitably compared, the biggest loser was Mr. Biden's Senate committee, which treated witness Anita Hill contemptuously, as if she were the one being investigated. To this point, Mr. Wagner has avoided that pitfall. His committee has treated the woman who accused Mr. Arnick with respect and seriousness.

Most important, Senator Wagner has not tried to save his friend by rushing a vote to confirm. After questions about Mr. Arnick's conduct raised public furor, the senator did the right thing by delaying a vote until more testimony could be heard. That vote, scheduled to take place today, should be put off again if necessary to get the whole story.

A politician's politician, Senator Wagner admits it would be very difficult for him to decide against Mr. Arnick. Rejection by the Senate committee would ruin his reputation and career, and neither Senator Wagner nor anyone else on the panel wants to play a part in that. Yet they must be prepared to make that unpleasant decision if, despite his long legislative record, Mr. Arnick's attitudes render him unfit to be a judge.

Whether or not Mr. Arnick is confirmed, Senator Wagner could come out of this mess a winner -- depending on how he handles the rest of this volatile hearing. Whatever feelings he has about Mr. Arnick have not influenced these proceedings so far. Neither should they influence the outcome.

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