The rescue of a judicial nomination

August 19, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

The bad news arrived on a cold January day in a phone call from Alexander Williams Jr., the Prince George's County state's attorney who had been nominated for a federal judgeship five months earlier.

A committee of the powerful American Bar Association had found him not qualified, Mr. Williams told Silver Spring attorney Koteles Alexander. That rating could kill his nomination. Would Koteles help devise a strategy to push the nomination forward?

Mr. Alexander, a partner of Alexander, Gebhardt, Aponte and Marks -- the largest minority-owned law firm on the East Coast -- knew little about the nomination process. But he knew and respected Alex Williams, a fellow African-American, and he agreed to do what he could.

Seven months later, the rescue effort paid off -- the Senate unanimously confirmed Mr. Williams to a U.S. District Court seat Wednesday. As many see it, that turnaround was due largely to a strategy set into motion by the January phone call.

In a 30-page blueprint obtained by The Sun, Mr. Alexander crafted a cohesive plan for rescuing the troubled nomination.

And that document, which called on the lobbying strength of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an independent rating by the nation's largest minority law group, provides a unique behind-the-scenes look at the campaign to save the nomination.

Without that campaign, "This would likely have been a nomination lost, not for want of a qualified candidate," said Wade Henderson, director of the NAACP's Washington office.

The rescue plan's first step called for building a case for Mr. Williams' legal prowess -- challenging the ABA's harsh critique.

The National Bar Association, a minority law group, was to evaluate Mr. Williams' 21-year career as a litigator, prosecutor and law professor. Prominent lawyers nationwide, and his former students at Howard University Law School, would be contacted for endorsements.

And two "reading committees" of attorneys and law school professors would evaluate Mr. Williams' legal writings, which had not impressed the ABA.

Meanwhile, members of minority and civil rights groups would quietly, but forcefully, lobby for the nomination. And prominent Maryland politicians would be recruited to convey their support to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

How strategy unfolded

The primary objective was to press the ABA to reverse its rating -- or, failing that, to persuade the group to forgo an aggressive fight against the nomination.

The ABA investigation, headed by Baltimore lawyer J. Hardin Marion of Tydings & Rosenberg, had concluded that Mr. Williams lacked substantial trial experience, had overstated his experience and had poorly crafted legal opinions.

An unflattering ABA report often means the end of the road for a potential nominee -- either because the administration is persuaded by the findings, or because the prospective judge hopes to avoid embarrassment. Because ratings usually are sought before announcing a nomination, the public is none the wiser.

But Mr. Williams was among several candidates President Clinton announced before ascertaining the ABA's view.

Whatever decision followed would be publicly scrutinized.

And as research showed, the ABA could be relentless in a confirmation fight, drafting top litigators to argue the association's position before the Judiciary Committee.

Even so, Mr. Alexander believed that, if the rest went according to plan, the nomination would succeed.

"I thought that as long as there was no other organized opposition, they weren't going to make headway," he says.

The ABA had told White House officials that it does not reconsider evaluations. But in analyzing more than 2,800 pages of confirmation transcripts, and reading scores of articles and books on the judicial selection process, Mr. Alexander and his staff discovered that negative ABA ratings were reversed during the Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Reagan administrations. Usually the reason was pressure from the administration.

Persuading the ABA to change its rating became his top priority.

The target was Robert P. Watkins, chairman of the ABA review committee. Soft-spoken and dignified, Mr. Watkins is an African-American whose career path has led him to one of Washington's top law firms, Williams & Connolly.

A well-respected lawyer, he follows the rules. And the ABA's rules are that the committee's work is confidential outside of limited discussions with the administration.

Among those chosen to contact Mr. Watkins was the NAACP's Mr. Henderson, a Capitol Hill veteran who had known the judicial nominee for years.

The ABA committee should take a second look, Mr. Henderson '' told Mr. Watkins at a meeting. The ABA often discounted lawyers from nontraditional backgrounds, particularly those not from prestigious law firms. ABA ratings would stand only as long as they held up to public scrutiny -- and in this case, Mr. Henderson said, the rating could not.

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