The rescue of a judicial nomination

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Mr. Williams' prominent position in the African-American community made him a role model for many young people, Mr. Henderson said, adding that the impact of such a rating reached well beyond the nominee.

The Judiciary Committee would believe that Mr. Watkins had viewed the evaluation of a fellow African-American with particular sensitivity, giving the rating a legitimacy that Mr. Henderson felt was undeserved.

Mr. Watkins replied that he could not divulge details of the investigation. He was cordial, listened politely, but said nothing.

Others also tried to persuade Mr. Watkins, notably Elaine Jones, director/counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

And several people who worked on the campaign claim that progress was being made.

'Like talking to the dead'

But two developments in late April disrupted those back-room negotiations.

Reports of the ABA's conclusions began appearing in the press, leading to accelerated and open criticism of the association from several corners.

The ABA was now locked in, Williams' supporters feared.

And a second campaign on behalf of Mr. Williams took root, causing a rift among some NAACP members.

To date, delicate diplomacy had been the rule in lobbying the ABA. But Leroy Warren of Silver Spring, chairman of the national NAACP's Crime and Criminal Justice Committee, was incensed to learn that the ABA had flunked Mr. Williams, and he opened fire.

The fast-talking, outspoken Mr. Warren called Mr. Watkins directly with a list of questions.

"He just stonewalled me," Mr. Warren said. "It was like talking to the dead."

So he began writing letters to newspapers, openly criticizing the bar group. A growing number of Maryland NAACP members began to share his outrage, and the unregimented group of Williams supporters threatened to carry their protests to the ABA's national convention and to picket Mr. Watkins' office.

At a national NAACP board meeting in Columbia, S.C., Mr. Henderson pulled Mr. Warren aside and gently suggested that he back off.

"I told him to take a walk," said Mr. Warren. The Koteles Alexander "clique" had squandered its opportunity for months, and the nomination was still in limbo, he said. "The bottom line is, the NAACP of Maryland is not going to be controlled by Koteles Alexander."

In the midst of these squabbles, a Sun editorial backed Mr. Williams and took aim at the ABA, accusing it of elitism. "The ABA doesn't consider black skin a handicap if one comes from a blue-ribbon law firm," the editorial stated.

As the debate erupted into public view, there appeared to be little chance of budging the ABA. "[The public debate] was a shot straight to the head," said Mimi Steward, an attorney who worked on the Williams campaign. "After that, the discussions started breaking down."

'Well-qualified'

Although the ABA wouldn't budge, other elements of the plan succeeded, gradually building a case for Mr. Williams' confirmation. The National Bar Association released its report, rating Mr. Williams "well-qualified." The reading committees concluded that Mr. Williams' writing was of sufficient caliber.

And some of the state's most powerful politicians stood behind him: Sen. Barbara Mikulski; Reps. Steny H. Hoyer, Kweisi Mfume and Albert R. Wynn; and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Meanwhile, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who had sponsored Mr. Williams, worked persistently, talking with members of the Judiciary Committee, touting the nominee's credentials and deflating the ABA's evaluation.

"It was a successful, brilliant strategy," Mr. Williams said yesterday, referring to the multipronged effort by supporters. "But first I had to be assured of support from the White House and Senator Sarbanes. I got that assurance throughout. They never waned."

(Had Alexander, Gebhardt, Aponte and Marks charged Mr. Williams for its work -- which it did not -- the bill would have totaled $100,000, Mr. Alexander said.)

By June the Clinton administration was ready to make its case before the Judiciary Committee.

Mr. Williams aggressively took up each of the ABA's criticisms as he testified before the committee. But none of the committee members raised a harsh word against Mr. Williams when he testified June 30.

The toughest questions went to the ABA, which was accused of not giving adequate weight to lawyers who pursue nontraditional careers.

Six weeks later, the committee unanimously endorsed Mr. Williams and forwarded his nomination to the full Senate, which confirmed him without debate Wednesday.

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