Marylander's chances for judgeship dimming

April 16, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer John B. O'Donnell contributed to this article.

Alexander Williams Jr., Prince George's County state's attorney and a powerful figure in Maryland's Democratic Party, appears in danger of being rejected for a federal court seat.

An American Bar Association review committee has raised doubts about Mr. Williams' qualifications for the judgeship, U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes acknowledged. A source familiar with the review process also indicated that the committee has reservations about the strength of Mr. Williams' candidacy.

The ABA committee -- which rates potential judges as highly qualified, qualified or unqualified -- has yet to formally rate Mr. Williams.

Robert P. Watkins, chairman of the ABA's Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary, the group that handles judicial reviews, declined to comment in an interview Thursday except to say that Mr. Williams "has not been found unqualified yet."

Without an ABA endorsement, Mr. Williams would face serious difficulties in winning the required approval from the U.S. Senate.

"If the ABA comes in and says a person is not qualified, that's usually the kiss of death," said Sherman Cohn, a Georgetown University law professor.

Mr. Williams has been waiting for eight months for a Senate vote on his nomination -- a longer wait than for any other judicial nomination by the Clinton administration.

Mr. Williams has had little experience in a federal courtroom and no experience as a judge. His career has been built on work as a local litigator, public defender and county prosecutor. He also received tenure as a law professor at Howard University.

"It seems to me those are all important dimensions that will help produce a person able to dispense justice fairly," said Mr. Sarbanes, who recommended Mr. Williams. "We have to see if [the ABA] can accommodate a different type of profile."

Mr. Sarbanes said he remains strongly behind Mr. Williams.

"I don't assume an automatic nature to any nomination; that is not unique to Alex Williams," the senator said, adding that there has has been no discussion about withdrawing the nomination.

Mr. Sarbanes faces a tough race for re-election this year, and withdrawing the nomination could be politically painful.

A spokesman for Mr. Williams said Thursday that the White House and Mr. Sarbanes had asked him not to comment on the status of the nomination. The spokesman said Mr. Williams had been told that a date for a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on his nomination would be set soon.

To receive an ABA endorsement, judicial candidates must be assessed as having sufficient experience, along with judicial temperament and integrity.

A source knowledgeable about the review said the ABA committee did not find problems with Mr. Williams' temperament or integrity.

The committee also requested an independent investigation of Mr. Williams, a step that is taken only when a candidate appears headed for an "unqualified" rating, the source said.

In August, when President Clinton nominated Mr. Williams to be a U.S. district judge, the choice was celebrated on two fronts. Mr. Williams, who is black, would bring diversity to the bench, and the nomination would add a federal judge in Maryland with roots in suburban Washington.

The White House usually receives a preliminary assessment from the ABA committee before announcing a judicial nomination, legal experts say. But that did not happen in Mr. Williams' case.

"He came with very strong, positive recommendations," said Joel Klein, the deputy White House counsel. "We felt confident about it."

As to the nomination's status, Mr. Klein said, "He's our nominee. We stand behind him."

Bernard Nussbaum oversaw Mr. Williams' selection while he was White House counsel. Mr. Nussbaum, who recently resigned that post, was criticized repeatedly for errors and gaps in reviews of candidates for government jobs that his office conducted.

Confronted with an apparently troubled nomination, the Clinton administration can withdraw it or allow it proceed to the Senate.

If the nomination were withdrawn, it probably would prompt charges of racial bias from minority group members who believe the white legal establishment doesn't give sufficient consideration to black judicial candidates.

Although no judicial candidates nominated by President Clinton have received an "unqualified" rating, the ABA committee has given mixed ratings on three, two women and one black man.

"Historically there has been concern about the ABA ratings, particularly for women and minorities," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People For the American Way, a liberal group that considers itself a court watchdog.

"If there were a problem with the rating of Williams, I imagine it would raise concerns," he said.

"I hope the ABA would not stand in the way of someone of Alex's qualifications," said Elaine Jones, director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In November, after the confirmation of fellow nominees Deborah K. Chasanow and Peter Messitte, Mr. Williams acknowledged that the ABA had raised questions about the large number of cases he claimed to have handled in his 12 years as a private attorney and public defender.

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