The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously endorsed Alexander Williams Jr. yesterday for a seat on Maryland's federal bench, while leveling a withering attack on the American Bar Association, which had found him unqualified for the job.
The recommendation all but assures that Mr. Williams, the Prince George's County state's attorney, will be confirmed when his long-delayed nomination moves to the floor of the Senate for a vote, perhaps within days.
Less certain is the influence the ABA will have on future nominations. For nearly 50 years, the organization's ratings have had the power to make or break a judicial nomination.
But in criticizing the Williams rating yesterday, senators characterized the ABA as narrow in its views and inconsistent in its standards.
A majority of committee members called for a renewed look at the ABA's role; it also was suggested that other lawyers' groups join in the judicial review.
"We now are at a happy confluence of opinion: We all hate the ABA," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee.
The nomination of Mr. Williams, who is black, has been watched closely by the NAACP, minority lawyers and others. Mr. Williams' confirmation to the U.S. District Court seat was delayed as he wrestled with the ABA's negative rating. Most other Clinton nominees waited only two months.
As month after month went by with no activity, minority bar groups and prestigious law professors joined to support the Prince George's prosecutor.
The issue nearly exploded into a confrontation between the ABA and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which threatened to picket the bar group's national conference.
Efforts to reach Mr. Williams after yesterday's vote were unsuccessful. Said Koteles Alexander, a lawyer who represented Williams through the nomination process: "We're elated. . . . Alex will make a fine judge."
Senator Biden said that in the next two weeks he will invite ABA officials to respond to concerns about the nomination process at a meeting with committee members.
Robert P. Watkins, who chaired the ABA review committee during the evaluation of Mr. Williams, said that he welcomes such a meeting but that he thinks it would be "extremely unwise" for senators to diminish the ABA's role. The group's evaluations are fair, thorough and unbiased, he said.
"If Congress decides to do it another way, it ought to be done in a way that gives us the best people for judges," Mr. Watkins said. "We've been doing this a long time, and we've done a good job."
A lawyer of 21 years, Mr. Williams has spent much of his career as a local litigator and prosecutor and as an adjunct law professor at Howard University.
But the ABA said he lacked substantial trial experience, exhibited poor legal writing and had overstated his courtroom experience.
Those reservations sparked accusations that the group was biased against Mr. Williams.
After the bar group called for a second evaluation, an independent investigator concluded that Mr. Williams was qualified.
Even after Mr. Williams' confirmation hearing in June -- during which senators from both parties voiced their support -- new accusations threatened the nomination, until the nominee responded to them in a 90-page memo.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, charged yesterday that appropriate weight had not been given to Mr. Williams' academic and courtroom credentials.
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, an Ohio Democrat, reminded committee members that the ABA had found the late Thurgood Marshall not qualified for a federal appellate court seat. Stephen Breyer recently breezed through with a well-qualified rating despite having never tried a case, he added.
"There is no cookie cutter for selecting federal judges, and let's -- pray there never is," said Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy.