Virginia Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb and Rep. Herbert E. Harris II disclosed today that they have presented the White House with competing plans to end the impasse over selection of four new federal judgeships in the state.
Robb said at an emotional Richmond news conference that he is working for the elevation of an unnamed federal judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, a step that would open a fifth Virginia judgeship that could be filled by a black or a woman.
In Washington, Harris released a letter to President Jimmy Carter calling on the president to announce he will not be limited to a list of 10, white male candidates for the four judgeships who were selected by commissions named by Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. (Ind.-Va.).
Robb declined to name the judge he has in mind for elevation to a federal appeals court, but it is presumed to be U.S. District Court Judge Robert R. Merhige of Richmond. A judicial nominating committee seeking to fill a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has invited Merhige to become a candidate.
Robb disclosed he is discussing his plans with Carter aides as he made an often agonizing response to charges by black leaders that he is supporting a racist judicial selection process by saying that the four open judgeships should be filled from the Byrd lists.
The lieutenant governor, the only statewide Democratic office holder in Virginia, said he supports "President Carter's goal of appointing black and female judges" but believes the president is now bound to choose from the list of candidates chosen by commissions that Carter asked Byrd to name.
The chairmen of the Byrd commissions have said they followed White House guidelines for merit selection scrupulously, but civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union have bitterly criticized their exclusively white and male lists of candidates.
Byrd has vowed to stand by the commission choices even though Carter has said he may not make judicial appointments in Virginia unless the senator agrees to add black and female candidates to the lists. The president has acknowledged that Byrd has the power to block any judicial appointment in the state that he opposes through the practice of "senatorial courtesy."
"I fully support and applaud President Carter's attempt to put blacks and women on the federal bench," Robb said, "but it seems to me that in this particular case, Sen. Byrd has done exactly what he was asked to do."
He added that the four open judgeships should be filled from the Byrd lists "as a matter of fundamental fairness to the people who have been selected."
Before Robb spoke to reporters in the Virginia Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, a group of black elected officials and civil rights advocates gathered in the same room to criticize Robb's support of the Byrd lists.
Jack W. Gravely, executive secretary of the state NAACP, released copies of a letter to Robb saying, "Your public statement smacks of blind and binding allegiance to a system of patronage based on color."
Another statement read by state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond) on behalf of a group including all five black members of the Virginia General Assembly called Robb's position "deplorable, compromising and not in the best interests of all the people in the Commonwealth." (text omitted)