Maryland's top federal prosecutor is in the final stages of the process to fill a vacancy at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, according to sources close to the procedure.
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein's name has been linked to the judgeship for more than a year. The vetting process has accelerated in the past several weeks, with the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice asking former colleagues about Rosenstein as part of background checks.
Supporters have called Rosenstein a sharp attorney, a successful and low-key leader of the highest integrity. The Harvard-trained lawyer rose quickly in the Justice Department - most notably working for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr - before being named the U.S. attorney for Maryland two years ago.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler credited Rosenstein for "going out of his way" to hire minority prosecutors, being the first Maryland U.S. attorney to gain a racketeering indictment against a gang and for restoring order to the U.S. attorney's office after the tumultuous tenure of Thomas M. DiBiagio.
"He came into an office that was in complete disarray," said Gansler, adding that the FBI called him about Rosenstein on Monday. "And he really gained the confidence of the legal community and restored the morale of the office in a relatively quick amount of time."
But last year, when Rosenstein's name surfaced as a possible court nominee, Maryland's Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes said Rosenstein lacked experience.
The decision to nominate Rosenstein rests with the White House, which declined to comment yesterday. The Senate must confirm nominations to federal courts.
"Rod Rosenstein is doing a good job as the U.S. attorney in Maryland, and that's where we need him," Mikulski said yesterday through a spokeswoman. "The White House should look at Maryland's federal bench for experienced jurists who have already passed the Senate with bipartisan support."
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Mikulski and Sarbanes blocked a previous Bush appointee to the Richmond Va.-based 4th circuit, considered the nation's most conservative appellate court. The court, which covers Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and North and South Carolina, has five vacancies.
Last week, Bush made two nominations, and experts say the administration is in a rush to retain the court's conservative reputation before the 2008 election.
It is unclear how politics will play out if Rosenstein is nominated, but without backing from Maryland's senators, confirmation would be difficult, said Carl Tobias, the Williams Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
"If someone is not a consensus nominee who the home state senators favor and are willing to push, a Democratic Senate is not inclined to confirm them," he said.
Those close to Rosenstein, who in law school was a member of the Federalist Society, say political ideology should not be a factor in the decision.
"My experience is good lawyers, whatever their political persuasion, make good judges," said Mark H. Tuohey, a Democrat, who worked with Rosenstein in 1995 on the Starr legal team. "This appointment should not be based on ideological grounds."
Tuohey said the Justice Department contacted him about Rosenstein a couple of weeks ago and said the prosecutor is a terrific choice for the federal bench. The FBI vetting process was first reported in yesterday's Washington Post.
"He impressed me with his judgment, his sense of fairness, his scholarship and lawyering skills," Tuohey said. "I think he has done very good work through his career and will continue to do good work."
Rosenstein, reached at his home yesterday, declined to comment.
Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who said she was contacted about Rosenstein's possible nomination, credited the prosecutor with increasing cooperation with local law enforcement. "He has been in the trenches," she said. "I think that's a good thing."
Gansler called the prosecutor, "somebody who really wants to do the right thing for the right reasons."
"He wants to be sure that justice is served," Gansler said. "Not necessarily to get convictions or the harshest sentences. He calls 'em like he sees 'em, in accordance to the law."
Staff reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.