Leaders of the predominately black Old Dominion Bar Association yesterday accused a commission screening candidates for federal judgeships in Virginia of making "only perfunctory contacts" with black candidates endorsed by the association.
Association member James E. Ghee of Farmville specifially criticized the commission, appointed by U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd (I-Va.) for failing to interview state Judge James E. Sheffield of Richmond or Norfolk attorney William T. Mason Jr., black candidates for U.S. District Court judgeships in Virginia's Eastern District.
"They only sent them questionaires and made no personal contact," Ghee said.
Former representative Thomas N. Downing of Newport News, chairman of the Eastern District Commission, disagreed in an interview with Ghee's description of the commission's review of Sheffield, Mason and other black candidates.
"It wasn't perfunctory," Downing said. "We had 45 candidates. We sent questionnaires to each one and obtained other material on them, Members of the commission observed the candidates who were judges in their courtroom and interviewed colleagues of those who were lawyers. We narrowed the list to nine through that process - which took seven months - and interviewed those nine in person."
Downing said none of the nine finalists was black."Every member of that commission hoped for a black nominee," he said, "but we felt obligated to select the five most qualified candidates we could find."
All five persons submitted to Byrd for the two Eastern District judgeships and all five submitted by a similar commission for two judgeships in the Western Districts were white males.
The failure of either commission to endorse black or female candidates has been strongly criticized by the Old Dominion Bar, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. All three organizations have appealed to the White House and the Justice Department for intervention in the appointment process by President Carter.
As part of his avowed effort to nominate judges on the basis of merit, Carter asked senators to select screening commissions for judicial candidates and Byrd was one of the first to comply. The conservative Virginia senator has said repeatedly he will stick by his promise to submit the 10 candidates selected by his commissions to Carter and support any four the President nominates. He has refused to reopen the selection process.
His commission followed procedures.
Downing said his commission followed procedures and selection guidelines formulated by the American Bar Association, the American judicature Society and the Justice Department.