Standing in the legal establishment and prior judicial experience rank high when federal appellate court vacancies are filled. Given the first two prerequisites, political connections don't hurt and sometimes they help.
But contrast, lack of prior judicial experience combine with strong political and personal ties are traits which have frequently paved the way to the most important state appellate judgeships in Maryland.
And, insiders say, it could soon happen again.
Alan M. Wilner, Gov. Marvin Mandel's chief legislative operative and lobbyist, is reliably reported to be the leading candidate for the new 13th seat on the Court of Special Appeals. And, although the appellate nominating commission won't meet until June 17, the at-large seat created by this year's legislature is already said to have his name stamped on it.
The 13-member appellate nominating commission is headed by Joseph Sherbow, a former Baltimore judge in whose law firm Wilner once toiled a dozen years ago. Sherbow said he would not disqualify himself from voting on Wilner because of their past associaton. "That was so far back," he said.
The commission must send five to seven names to Acting Gov. Blair Lee but "may name less" in special cases, according to Sherbow, who promised, "That won't happen in this case.
Wilner, 40, denies that he has any commitment from either Mandel or Lee, who as acting governor has pledged to fulfill Mandel's patronage promises.
Wilner said he "hasn't been politicking" and termed reports that he has the seat locked up "unfortunate because it isn't true . . . I can understand how that rumor can spread being on the governor's staff," he said. "The governor gave mu no assurances, just somewhat hesitant permission."
Despite such disovowals, if all goes as predicted, Wilner will be following ethers with close Mandel ties and lack of judicial experience to the state's appellate bench.
John C. Eldridge, Wilner's immediate predecessor as Mandel's top legislative troubleshooter, went directly to the high Court of Appeals, which is adalogous to the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1973.
Richard P. Gilbert, a Mandel law partner and never before a judge, is now chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals that Wilner seeks to join. Rita C. Davidson and David T. Mason, both former state secretaries of employment and social services under Mandel, also achieved their first judicial jobs on the same court. Their court colleague Thomas Hunter Lowe is a former Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.
Despite Eldridge's otherwise impressive credentials - Harvard Law School, a high Justice Department post - his appointment evoked an outcry from the organized bar of Anne Arundel County, whose appellate circuit seat he now fills. The county bar associaton felt he was Mandel's man, not theirs, despite his Annapolis address.
The same resentment can be expected to flair from the Prince George's County bar should Wilner get the new seat. Prince George's has one appellate judge out of 19 on the two benches. Meanwhile, the city of Baltimore has five, Anne Arundel and Montgomery have three each, and Baltimore County, one. The 20th seat, Prince George's lawyers say, should be theirs.
"I feel Prince George's County should be considered," said Senate President Steny Hoyer, of District Heights, also a lawyer. However, Hoyer, perhaps hedging his political bets, said he has made no plans to lobby for the seat "at this time."
Four from Prince George's have applied: State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr., attorney Karl Feissner, Circuit Court Judge James Taylor and District Court Administrative Judge James M. Rea. Apart from Wilner, there are eight other candidates from across the state, according to state court administrator William Adkins, who said that names are confidential.
Since House Speaker John Hanson Briscoe was interested in the 13th seat, he did not vote on its creation, to avoid any appearance of self-interest, he said. But his interest in the seat has waned.
He expressed keen interest, though, in another seat on the special appeals court, one reportedly becoming vacant in October. The seat belongs to Jerrold V. Powers, of Cheverly, Prince George's lone state appellate judge.
The rumor that Powers would retire early "has matured into what appears to be fairly a certainty," said Briscoe, a 42-year-old lawyer whose background is political, not judicial.
"I'm sure there will be a lot of pressure from the Prince George's bar" to keep the seat in the county, Briscoe said. "They've got a strong argument." On the other hand, he said, his largely rural county of St. Mary's has never had a state appellate court judge.
In the local arena, the politicians of Prince George's County are preparing, intentionally, some say, to thumb their collective nose at the county's organized bar.
The politicians, through the twice-monthly "Breakfast Club" of elected officials, have traditionally deferred in judicial selection to the local bar association by recommending to the governor for appointment the top vote-getter in the bar election held for each court vacancy.
This process works best, from the politicians' standpoint, when the word circulates before the election that one candidate has been annointed. This tends to discourage the entry of other serious contenders. That way the politically backed candidate also becomes the bar's choice.
The scenario did not work in the recent election for the seat of District Court Judge Richard V. Waldon, a Republican far down the list of any bar popularity poll. The candidate of most of the politicians, Del. Robert Redding (D-Bowie), finished an unimpressive third, with 60 votes, trailing Republican Francis Broeli, with 124, and domestic relations master Bond L. Holford, with 204.
Broelli is reportedly favored by State Senate President Hoyer, who is said to feel that an all-Democrat bench in Prince George's would look unseemly. (Hoyer refused to discuss the judgeship with a reporter.) But Reddking has powerful allies, among them County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr., and David G. Ross, also a state delegate from Bowie, vice president of the county's legislative delegation, and, incidentally, Redding's law partner.
So, at the Breakfast Club June 6, the informal consensus favored Redding. Formal action is scheduled for June 20. Holford will then be in the unique position of having won two bar elections and lost both judgeships. The only previous time the politicians bypassed the bar winner was to select a black lawyer for a District Court vacancy.
Redding will become the first "outfront" politician in memory to get the nod for a Prince George's judgeship. Other judges with political ties have not come from the ranks of elected officials, who now reportedly feel it's their turn on the bench.