The national NAACP and a minority lawyers group are gearing up for a battle with the American Bar Association over the nomination of Alexander Williams Jr. for a seat on Maryland's federal bench.
The nomination of Mr. Williams, the state's attorney for Prince George's County, slipped into limbo after an ABA review committee raised doubts about his qualifications. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is preparing for a public confrontation with the ABA unless the 9-month-old nomination of Mr. Williams moves forward soon, said Leroy W. Warren Jr., chairman of the organization's Crime and Criminal Justice Committee.
Mr. Warren would not reveal specific plans, which he said were discussed at a NAACP board of directors meeting over the weekend in Columbia, S.C. The National Bar Association, an organization of minority lawyers with 16,000 members, also is preparing to challenge the ABA.
The ABA's standing committee on federal judiciary reviews all nominees before forwarding a rating of highly qualified, qualified or unqualified to the U.S. Senate. The group has yet to rate Mr. Williams, although a source knowledgeable about the process says its work has been done for weeks and its conclusions have been communicated to the Justice Department and the White House.
Mr. Williams has remained unconfirmed longer than any federal bench nominee named by the Clinton administration.
In its review, the ABA committee expressed doubts that Mr. Williams' background was sufficient, according to a source familiar with the review process.
The delay has left his supporters alleging that Mr. Williams is being treated unfairly because he is black and lacks ties to a "blue-chip" law firm. Mr. Williams has been a local litigator, public defender and county prosecutor.
"The ABA has too much authority in these matters," said Paulette Brown, president of the NBA. "Alex Williams is one of our absolute best. We will do whatever it is we can to ensure he gets his proper place on the bench."
Supporters of Mr. Williams -- a lawyer of 21 years who is completing his second term as Prince George's County state's attorney -- suggest that the committee is stalling to avert a political backlash if he is rated "unqualified."
"It would create a firestorm, so they delay things and hope he'll go away," said Mr. Warren. "At some point, we have to take the ABA on. They think time is on their side. We think just the opposite."
Representatives from a number of minority and legal organizations say they have written letters and made phone calls to the Clinton administration and the ABA conveying their concerns. Another letter-writing campaign was launched this week by the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches.
Administration officials and Maryland Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who recommended Mr. Williams for the position, said they remain strongly behind him.
The chairman of the ABA's federal judiciary committee, Robert P. Watkins III, declined to discuss the status of the evaluation yesterday. When told that plans were afoot by the NAACP to publicly challenge the ABA, he said he could not respond because he was going to a meeting. Efforts to reach him later were unsuccessful.
The ABA's longtime and powerful influence in the judicial confirmation process has come under attacks in recent years from both liberals and conservatives.
Although a small number of judicial candidates have survived negative evaluations from the ABA, a rating of "unqualified" from the group is usually fatal to a nomination.
A number of minority bar associations -- including the NBA, and the Monumental City and J. Franklin Bourne bar associations -- have endorsed Mr. Williams. The Maryland State Bar Association keeps its rating confidential.
Although the Senate Judiciary Committee is not obligated to wait for the ABA rating, it is considered unlikely to go forward without it. That prospect is also regarded as unpalatable for the ABA, because it could set a precedent that would diminish the group's role.
The nine-month wait has left Mr. Williams in an awkward position to plan his future. He must file papers by July 5 if he intends to run for re-election this fall.
Mr. Williams said nobody from the ABA has told him about problems with his qualifications.
"I intend to stay focused on the confirmation hearing," Mr. Williams said. "I've been given no indication other than that the White House and Senator Sarbanes will eventually move forward with it."