Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer has three bulging files in his office, each containing references, re'sume's and evaluations of a distinguished attorney who wants a seat on Maryland's highest court.

Still, there's something the governor may not know about one of the three nominees for the Maryland Court of Appeals -- Wicomico County Circuit Judge Alfred T. Truitt Jr.

Two years ago, a Maryland judge ruled that Truitt failed to disclose evidence critical to the defense in a 1969 murder trial. Truitt was then the Wicomico County prosecutor and tried the case himself.

The 22-year-old defendant in the case, James Branch Wise, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He has spent more than two decades there, much of it fighting for a new trial in a tortuous journey through state and federal courts.

In 1988, Howard County Circuit Judge J. Thomas Nissel ruled that Truitt failed to disclose that he had made a deal with William Mack -- Wise's alleged partner in crime and later the prosecution's key witness.

Under the terms of their agreement, Mack knew that he was unlikely to face charges if he acted as a cooperating witness in the case. Mack provided the only testimony that directly linked Wise with the 1967 murder at a Salisbury, Md., gasoline station.

Truitt has been criticized for his handling of the case. Judge Nissel asserted that Truitt's "nondisclosure became particularly egregious" at a bench conference during Wise's trial when Mack "denied the existence of any agreements. The prosecutor was obligated to correct Mack's misstatement. ... "

Nissel ordered a new murder trial, now scheduled for next month -- 23 years after Wise was jailed.

Truitt has vehemently denied the allegations, testifying at a 1985 federal hearing that as the county's lone prosecutor he had an "open file" policy, granting all defense attorneys access to his criminal files. He testified he was "certain" he had given the file to Wise's lawyers.

Last Friday in a telephone interview, Truitt reiterated that statement, and said, "I don't know what all the problem is." He asserted again, "I did not do anything wrong."

With Wise's new trial set to begin Dec. 12, this case from Truitt's distant past has surfaced. It could not have happened at a worse time for him, nor at a better time to raise some serious questions about the way judges are selected.

Since last July, Schaefer has been considering which of the three nominees to select for the appeals court seat, which pays $99,000 a year. Along with the 63-year-old Truitt, the nominees are Court of Special Appeals Judge Robert L. Karwacki, a 57-year-old jurist who also had served on the Baltimore bench for 11 years, and Salisbury trial lawyer K. King Burnett, 55.

The three were nominated by the state's 13-member appellate courts nominating commission, made up of lawyers and public representatives. It is part of the gantlet that judicial applicants run in their quest for the bench. The would-be judges are interviewed, investigated and scrutinized by the commission and other legal panels. Despite all that, it seems the issue from Truitt's past never turned up.

Just how could judicial evaluators have missed a legal battle that erupted time and again for more than a decade before a succession of state and federal judges in Maryland?

Perhaps it's because lawyers and judges are loathe to criticize their own. Nissel's 1988 opinion, strong as it was, never even mentions Truitt's name, chastising instead an unnamed "prosecutor." Only by digging into the voluminous file would anyone uncover the prosecutor's identity.

Nor is it easy to figure out precisely how the appellate nominating commission does its job or what it actually knows. Everything the panel does is secret.

When interviewed, one member of the panel was so undone by questions about Truitt that he first said that he wasn't aware of the Wise case, then said, "Maybe I knew, but forgot," and finally asked how he could find Judge Nissel's opinion.

According to commission rules, the secrecy is supposed to encourage "open and frank discussion." No doubt it does. But it also shields those who want to be judges from the tough public scrutiny that's par for the course in the quest for other important public offices.

Bethesda lawyer Durke Thompson, head of a separate bar panel that reviewed the judicial nominees, said he was concerned that his panel had failed to learn of the controversy. "Absolutely, this is the kind of information we consider important," Thompson said.

Without commenting on its merit, Thompson said the allegation against Truitt goes to the issue of integrity, and he wants to know more. "I also want to know why we didn't know about it."

Truitt's admirers leap to his defense. Wicomico County State's Attorney Davis Ruark, who once clerked for Truitt, couldn't understand why the decades-old controversy would interest anyone.

He cited Truitt's years of public service, including five as a public defender and 13 on the bench, as more important. "I ... did not believe there were any ethical or legal problems that Judge Truitt either participated in or condoned in any fashion," Ruark said last week. "I just don't see it. ... "

D.C. lawyer Greta Van Susteren, now Wise's defense lawyer, sees it differently.

"This is not a slight boo-boo back in 1968," she said. "This was egregious conduct, in the words of Judge Nissel. It cost a man 22 years of his life in prison, and it shows that ... back in 1968, Mr. Truitt didn't put much of a premium on fair trials. ... Now he's being considered for the high court, and we better take a very, very close look at this man now."

Personalities

Trial lawyer Thomas S. Martin, late of Jenner & Block, has joined the D.C. office of New York's Shearman & Sterling, as the firm moves to beef up its litigation department here. ... Northern Virginia lawyer James C. Hughes, general counsel of BDM International for a dozen years, joins the Vienna office of Dickstein, Shapiro & Morin. ... If D.C. defense attorney Francis D. Carter has his way, the sign at Fifth Street and Indiana Avenue NW will no longer read "District of Columbia Courthouse." Carter and friends are pushing to name the courthouse after the late H. Carl Moultrie I, who served as chief judge from 1978 until his death in 1986.

You Can Go Home Again Former South Dakota senator James G. Abourezk is doing his best to show that Thomas Wolfe had it all wrong. After years of ups and downs in the District, Abourezk hung out a shingle last month in his native Rapid City.

He now shares office space with the same lawyer he worked with before coming to Congress 20 years ago.

Back home, the vegetables are fresher, the movies are cheaper and the practice of law is friendlier, Abourezk says. Yes, he will remain active in the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee he founded. But no, he insists, his new practice will not involve lobbying.

"I always felt bad for former members of Congress when I saw them come back to the Capitol to hustle something," said the irrepressible Abourezk. "I decided I'd have to be awfully hungry to do that kind of work."