The D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission has become involved in a vigorous debate over whether a primary qualification to be considered in selecting the new chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court should be strong administrative ability or the judge's ties to the community.
The two leading candidates to emerge in ongoing deliberations by the seven-member commission are Judges H. Carl Moultrie and James A. Belson, according to knowledgeable sources. Judge Joyce Hens Green also is considered a possible successor, the sources said.
The commission has taken at least one straw vote and Moutrie appeared to be the most preferred candidate at that time, sources said. However, there is a wide range of views and personal preferences on the diverse commission, sources said and an immediate decision on a choice of a new judge seems unlikely.
"I don't think anyone wants to call the thing for a vote," one commission member said privately yesterday. "No one is sure who has the votes."
One underlying consideration in the panel's deliberation is race, according to knowledgeable sources. The District of Columbia is 75 percent black and yet the Superior Court, which touches on the lives of perhaps more city residents that any other city legal operation always has been headed by whites.
Four of the commissions seven members - William Lucy, Willie Leftwich, Frederick E. Abramson and Charles Duncan, the commission chairman - are black. Moultrie is the only black judge under consideration. Several sources said a straight vote along racial lines was not likely.
"I think it would be wrong, one source familiar with the deliberations said, "to assume that because you have a majority black commission you'll have a black judge."
The chief judge of Superior Court presides over 43 other judges who hear cases in five different divisions of the court - ranging from felony trials to landlord-tenant squabbles and family matters. In addition, the chief judgeship involves negotiating with the local and federal governments over the court's budget.
The U.S. Senate last week confirmed President Carter's nomination of outgoing Chief Judge Harold H. Greene to a seat on the U.S. District Court, here. He is expected to assume his new position in mid-June.
In many respects, the deliberations over the chief judge's position involve issues that constantly are debated by the varying professional, racial and social groups in the city. The seven commission members themselves also represent a variety of backgrounds.
None of the four candidates under consideration - the fourth if Judge Tim Murphy - is considered by the commission members to be unqualified for the job. Rather, sources say privately, all four are believed to be capable of taking over the court and that had made the selection process more difficult.
Thus, the debate and discussion has become one of what special personal quality should be given most emphasis. Moultrie, 63, is the former president of the Washington NAACP with an active background in community affairs. His community ties are considered his strongest point, according to some sources.
Belson, 47, is a former partner in the prestigious Washington law firm of Hogan and Hartson, who, one commission member said privately, "is probably the best pure lawyer among the group." He is considered strong in administration.
Green, 49, has been well-received by the commission as a possible innovater with good ideas for improving the court operations. Green presided over a series of complicated tax cases involving claims by city homeowners against the District of Columbia government.
Murphy, 49, is a former U.S. attorney who is believed to be one of the best overall administrators in the court, but has at times been criticized for being too demanding with lawyers and citizens appearing in his court.
Some commission members have expressed concern that neither Green nor Murphy live in the District of Columbia, although residence in the city is not a requirement for the position of chief judge.
Other factors being considered, in addition to city residency, administrative ability and community ties, include tenure on the bench, overall legal experience and the ability to deal with the new home rule government and Congress.
Some sources close to the commission said that the argument over administrative ability is seen by some in the city as a racist one, aimed at preventing someone black from becoming chief judge of the Superior Court.