Keisler likely to be tapped for judgeship

D.C. lawyer could fill Md.'s 4th Circuit slot

April 03, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Peter D. Keisler, a prominent Washington lawyer, is the apparent first choice of the White House to fill a vacancy on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals created by the death last year of liberal Baltimore Judge Francis D. Murnaghan Jr.

Keisler would come to the job with strong conservative credentials - he clerked for Robert H. Bork on the appeals court in Washington and for Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, and worked in the Reagan White House - signaling the kind of experience President Bush might seek as he moves to fill nearly 100 federal judicial vacancies across the country.

At least four Maryland attorneys are being considered for the lifetime appointment, but Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a 2nd District Republican, said that Keisler, 40, appears to be the White House's first choice.

"Obviously, there are a bunch of folks that have expressed interest - and very learned folks - but clearly he is well thought of by the White House," said Ehrlich, who has met with Keisler about the position and called him a "very impressive guy."

Keisler, of Bethesda, is a partner in the Washington office of Sidley & Austin, a Chicago-based law firm. Much of his private-practice work has involved telecommunications; corporate giant AT&T is one of his major clients.

The White House declined to identify or comment on any potential nominees, and Keisler did not return a phone call seeking comment. But friends say he would bring a keen legal mind to the Richmond, Va.-based court, which hears appeals of federal cases from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina and is one tier below the Supreme Court.

Howard M. Shapiro, a Washington attorney with the firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, is a Democrat who became friends with Keisler while they were law students at Yale University. Shapiro said he has "enormous respect for Peter and his fair-mindedness and thoughtfulness."

"There's no question that Peter is conservative," Shapiro said. "But he's not - if this is an expression that's meaningful - he's not a partisan."

After graduating in 1985 from law school at Yale, where he also earned his undergraduate degree, Keisler was a law clerk to Bork on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and supported Bork during his failed nomination to the Supreme Court.

Keisler then clerked for Kennedy and served in the White House counsel's office under President Ronald Reagan, where he earned a reputation as one of Washington's leading young, conservative lawyers.

He has been an active member of the conservative Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, an organization often at odds with the more mainstream American Bar Association.

Keisler gave $1,000 to Bush's presidential campaign last year, federal election records show. He also has contributed to other GOP congressional races in recent years, including $350 in 1998 to Rep. Constance A. Morella, a moderate who represents Maryland's 8th District; and $500 in 1996 to former Indiana Rep. David McIntosh, Keisler's roommate at Yale and the past chairman of the Conservative Action Team, a caucus of strongly right-leaning House Republicans.

The 4th Circuit vacancy was created by the death Aug. 31 of Murnaghan, who served 21 years on the 4th Circuit bench.

That seat has traditionally been held by a Maryland judge, and Keisler is not a member of the Maryland bar or widely known in the state's legal circles. But Ehrlich, one of the state's leading Republicans and a co-chairman of Bush's campaign in Maryland, said the seat is not firmly designated for the state.

Late last year, President Bill Clinton nominated Judge Andre M. Davis, who sits in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, to fill the slot. That nomination expired when Congress recessed for the year without holding a hearing.

Davis' name is one of those still under consideration for a new nomination under Bush. Also under review are U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg of Baltimore, appointed to the federal bench in 1991 by President George Bush, the president's father; Rockville attorney Roger W. Titus, with the firm Venable, Baetjer & Howard; and Baltimore attorney Joel A. Dewey, with Piper, Marbury, Rudnick & Wolfe.

Davis and Legg declined to comment. Titus and Dewey could not be reached to comment.

Much attention surrounding the 4th Circuit has focused on Roger L. Gregory, a Virginia lawyer selected by Clinton for the court in a rare recess appointment last year.

Gregory became the first African-American to serve on the court, but he must step down at the end of this year if he is not confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The president formally withdrew Gregory's nomination last month.

The Bush White House is moving to fill vacancies on the federal bench, partly because of the delicate balance of power in the Senate. The 852-judge federal system has 94 vacancies.

The chamber is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, with Republican Vice President Dick Cheney breaking ties. That slightest edge could evaporate if any senator fails to finish his or her term or if Democrats make gains in the 2002 elections.

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