Sometime this summer at least three and perhaps five U.S. District Court Judgeships could open up in Virginia - lifetime, $54,500-a-year jobs that are among the nation's choicest political plums.
The demand for previous judgeships in the state has often led to Bysantine political maneuvering. The last vacancy produced a lengthy fight between Republican Sen. William L. Scott and President Gerald Ford that ended with a victory for the senator.
This time the process could work smoothly as a result of new selection commissions set up by Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. at President Carter's request. Or it could turn into a dogfight in-liberal Democrats.
The selection of new federal judges will occur, with variations in the way they are chosen, in every state and the District of Columbia if about 100 district court judgeships are created by the Omnibus Judgeship bill now moving through Congress.
The choices will be important since "This is where the daily work of the federal courts is going on," said A.E. (Dick) Howard, a University of Virginia law professor and an authority on the federal judiciary.
"A federal district court judge has great autonomy. The majority of his cases will never be reviewed. More often than no the judge is deciding a factual situation," Howard said. "A lot circumstances where there will never be a review by higher courts."
One early and confused round in selection process under the Carter Administration already has been resolved in Byrd's favor. Byrd, a former Democrat turned independent, received a letter from Carter last month suggesting that the senator set up commissions to select candidates for district court judgeships.
White House officials later said they may have a mistake in sending Byrd the letter, which went to all members of the Democratic caucus. Byrd, runs as an independent in Virginia, but is a member of the Senate Democratic caucus in Washington.
At the time, Rep. Herbert E. Harris (D-Va.) was circulating a plan among his party colleagues to set up a similar commission because the state has no Democratic senator.
Byrd quickly named commissions for the eastern and western districts of Virginia and waited for the furor among some Virginia Democrats to subside.
A Justice Department spokesman said last week that "as it is right now it will be the Byrd commission that makes the recommendation." A Harris spokesman said. "There is nothing going on here," indicating Harris had abandoned his plans for a commission.
Byrd said that he has had several discussions with Attorney General Griffin Bell and that he, Byrd, will play the traditional role of a senator from the president's party.
That role, at its strongest, allows the senator to pick the nominees for district judgeships and at least calls for the senator's approval of a White House choice.
Byrd said that he will not make suggestions of nominees to his commissions and expects their members to operate independently of him.
The list of nominees will include four or five names for the two new judgeships that are expected to be created in the eastern district, where six active judges now sit. A Senate passed bill also would create two judgeships in the western district where two judges now sit. The House version, which is still in committee, would add only one judge in the west.
The pending legislation, which will have to be reconciled in conference, also would add three judges to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where one vacancy already exists. It is possible that a district court judge from Virginia could be elevated to the appeals court, creating still another opening in Virginia at the district court level.
Bryd said he has not decided whether he will send several names or just one name for each slot to the President.
The nominees would then be checked by the FBI and rated by a special committee of the American Bar Association and, with the President's approval, sent to the Senate for confirmation.
The names would go to the Judiciary Committee where Scott, whose role in appointments under GOP presidents was extremely controversial, is the third-ranking Republican.
Scott refused to discuss his past and future role in Virginia appointments, but a spokesman said, "What role the senator might play is uncertain. It's not clear if he will have a role in the selection process, but it is clear that he will have a key role in the confirmation process.He will have an ample opportunity to review the qualifications of those recommended by the President."
Whether Scott, who has bona fide conservative credentials, would oppose a qualified nominee on grounds he was too liberal also is uncertain, the Scott spokesman said.
But a person familiar with the Judiciary Committee said, "A nomination for a district judgeship in Virginia that Scott was violently opposed to would be difficult to get out of committee."
The result would be a test of wills between Scott, Byrd, the Judiciary Committee and the White House, which would be under pressure from blacks and liberals in Virginia who might already feel that a nominee too liberal for Scott was too conservative for them.
The choices then would include a committee override of Scott, a step that would be taken with great reluctance, a compromise, or a stalemate that could last through 1978 when Scott's term expires. He has said he is not running for re-election.
Names of possible nominees are being submitted now to the commissions and are beginning to surface in discussions among lawyers. They included Henry E. Howell until he eliminated himself by upsetting Andrew P. Miller for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, State Sen. J. Harry Michael (D-Charlottesville), Alexandria Circuit Court judge Wiley Wright and Arlington attorney and substitute judge Ken McFarlane Smith.
The eastern district commission, chaired by former U.S. Rep. Thomas Downing of Newport News, met Friday for the first time to establish nominating procedures.
Its members are John T. Hazel, a prominent Fairfax zoning lawyer; E. Waller Dudley of Alexandria, a former state bar association president; Mildred Slater, a Richmond lawyer; James C. Roberts, president of the Richmond Bar; J. Hugo Madison, lawyer and former rector of predominantly black Norfolk State College; Joseph Carter, Richmond lawyer; Josiah Rowe III, general manager of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star; and Dr. Luther W. White, president of Randolph Macon College.
Downing said the commission had asked bar associations, other interested organizations and individuals to submit names for consideration by July 18. The commission will meet again on July 22 to begin choosing nominees.
Downing said all candidates suggested to the commission will be asked to answer a detailed questionaire and will then be investigated by the commission.
"I think it's an excellent trial run to see if we can get the judges out of the pure political process," Downing said "We have asked that names be submitted to us on the basis of merit alone.
"Party politics has been paramount in some cases, but I think this will depoliticize it," he said.
Judges senators and congressional aides about 25 lawyers interviewed for these articles on the Virginia judiciary generally expressed support for the commission concept and praised the make-up of the eastern district commission as exceptionally able.
A spokesman for the NAACP complained that his organization had not had a chance to make any recommendations on the commission's make-up and said that it left blacks and the poor under represented.
In the western district, one critic, while conceding that the commission was able, said that it was basically made up of Byrd's friends.
"Are you really divorcing it from politics when you name a commission?" he asked. "There's a lot to be said for having the choice made by people who are answerable directly to the people."