The D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure yesterday charged D.C. Superior Court Judge W. Byron Sorrell with "poor judgment" and "lack of understanding" yesterday and rated him only minimally qualified for reappointment to the federal bench.
In a 14-page report to President Carter the commission charged that Sorrell "has used the power of his judicial . . . office to influence the outcome of proceedings before him."
"Judge Sorrell has behaved in a manner explainable only by poor judgment and lack of insight and understanding into the role of a judge," the Commission wrote.
Sorrell was evaluated "qualified" for reappointment, the minimum evaluation a candidate can receive and still be reappointed. Under the D.C. Home Rule Act, the president may opt not to reappoint a judge rated as "qualified" alone.
Sorrell, a Republican appointed to the bench by President Nixon in 1969, will serve out his 10-year term on July 7. A reappointment by Carter would be for a 15-year-term.
Jacob Stein, an attorney retained by Sorrell to advise him during the evaluation period, said yesterday that Sorrell intends to submit comments to the White House in response to the Commission's harsh criticism of his tenure on the bench.
"We feel that the commission has not given the proper weight to the established reputation of the judge for devotion to his work," Stein said. "It seems the only thing they've held against him is that he may be too entusiastic about his work."
One focus of the commission's report was on Sorrell's practice of routinely calling defense attorneys and prosecutors into his chambers before criminal trials to discuss pleas and sentences.
"Whether explicit, as some say, or implicit, as almost all acknowledge," the commission wrote, "the message from the judge is very clear: 'Your client should plead guilty.'"
The commission wrote that numerous defense attorneys have told the six-member body that in the off-the-record conferences in his chambers, Sorrell rendered "almost precise forcasts of sentences" he would give, if their clients pleaded guilty.
The report followed two commission interviews with Sorrell last month plus polls conducted by the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, the Assistant United States Attorneys Association, and the D.C. Bar.
"It is noteworthy that in none of the three polls did a majority of those responding recommend that Judge Sorrell be automatically reappointed," the commission wrote.
In another report the commission found Judge George Herbert Goodrich "well qualified" for automatic reappointment for a 15-year term.