American Bar Association officials said yesterday they had found Alexander Williams Jr. unqualified for a federal judgeship in Maryland because he lacks substantial trial experience, exhibited poor legal writing and had overstated his courtroom work.
But Mr. Williams' supporters packed a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room to rally behind him,emphasizing his varied experience as a law professor, county prosecutor and private attorney. While he may lack time with a high-powered law firm, he has been busy for 21 years practicing "people law," the committee was told.
And despite the ABA's harsh assessment of Mr. Williams, it was bar association members, not the nominee, who fielded the toughest questions in the three-hour confirmation hearing. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, railed against the ABA's powerful influence in the nomination process, and an independent investigator hired by the association contradicted its findings.
Although no vote was taken yesterday, the hearing itself ended 10 months of waiting by Mr. Williams, the Prince George's County state's attorney who was nominated to the U.S. District Court last August by President Clinton.
Earlier word of the ABA's findings had prompted allegations that the group is biased against Mr. Williams, who is black. But an ABA official yesterday said that Mr. Williams was treated no differently than any other candidate and suggested that the allegations resulted from unhappiness about the negative rating.
The ABA's reservations about Mr. Williams left his nomination in limbo until last week, when the White House said it intended to move forward and asked the ABA to send its findings to the Senate.
The Judiciary Committee is not expected to make a recommendation until late July or August.
Yesterday, even conservative Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who many suspected might oppose the Williams nomination, offered qualified words of reassurance to the candidate. "I think things are going to go OK for you, assuming nothing goes wrong in the final workup," he said.
Still, the ABA's criticisms -- and the presence of only one-third of the Judiciary Committee yesterday -- suggest that Mr. Williams could face a rough road to confirmation.
The ABA's Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary, which rates all nominees to the federal bench, said Mr. Williams tried to "puff himself into someone with more trial experience than he actually had."
Asked to supply the ABA with a list of the 10 most significant
cases he personally had litigated, Mr. Williams produced "extremely weak" examples that included a robbery, a divorce and a zoning matter, said Robert P. Watkins, head of the ABA committee.
"Rather than providing accurate information, Mr. Williams answered questions in a way that masked his lack of substantial trial experience," Mr. Watkins testified.
For example, the ABA doubted Mr. Williams' claims that he handled "numerous trials, arguments and motions" in a heated divorce case, after the opposing counsel could not recall the case. The ABA found that another case involved no trial at all, although Mr. Williams filed an appeal.
Mr. Williams claimed to have tried 650 cases to verdict or judgment as sole counsel. But when an ABA investigator asked him how he had arrived at that figure, he said he really didn't know how many cases he had tried, that maybe it was only 300, Mr. Watkins reported.
His legal writing, Mr. Watkins testified, is pedestrian and inappropriate. "Obscure terminology is used at the expense of clarity, and the analysis is shallow," he said.
Mr. Williams vigorously defended himself against the criticisms, saying many of the case files no longer exist and he reconstructed most of the information from memory. The 10 cases he chose were a sampling of his varied experience, not necessarily his biggest cases, he said, attributing the misunderstanding to a "communications gap."
Although he acknowledged that articles written in his law school days needed work, he had improved with age and experience, Mr. Williams said. "These things are insulting to me; I'm resentful," he told the committee. "I call it nit-picking."
Some committee members appeared to agree.
At one point, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy -- a former local prosecutor in Vermont -- asked if the suggestion was being made that a state's attorney is not qualified to hold high federal office.
And he said he worried that the "traditional bar" does not give enough weight to the experience gained in the local courts. He recalled successfully trying cases against young Ivy League lawyers -- they with their briefcases and he with a torn paper bag of documents.
William J. Brennan III, who was hired by the ABA to make an independent evaluation -- and found Mr. Williams qualified -- acknowledged that the nominee had flaws. But he said he was impressed by his "humanity, compassion and ambition -- all the things we want to see in a judge."
He urged the committee to "take a chance" and endorse Mr. Williams.