D.C. Superior Court Judge W. Byron Sorrell, given a low rating for reappointment by a judicial selection panel, has requested and received presidential approval for retirement Aug. 31, the White House confirmed yesterday.
Sorrell, 59, an appointee of President Nixon whose 10 years on the bench were marked by frequent controversy, had been rated by the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure as only minimally qualified for a new 15-year term.
The rating, "qualified" for reappointment, was the minimum evaluation a candidate could receive and still qualify for a new term. It gave President Carter the option of refusing to appoint Sorrell.
The president last week granted Sorrell's request for retirement, according to Douglas Huron, an assistant White House counsel. He said brief letters were exchanged.
Sorrell's replacement will be appointed by Carter from among three names that must be provided by a judicial nominating committee.
Although Sorrell's retirement benefits were not announced, the law applying to a Superior Court judge with 10 years of service would produce a lifetime pension of about $13,000 a year, a city finance official estimated.
The law also permits Sorrell to continue serving on the bench and drawing full salary, less pension payments, if assigned by the court's chief judge. A Superior Court judge's pay is $49,050 a year.
Asked whether he would ask Sorrell to continue hearing cases, Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I replied: "Of course I will. I have no problem with that."
Sorrell was on vacation yesterday at an undisclosed location, and no one was at his office at the D.C. Courthouse. Jacob Stein, a lawyer retained by Sorrell to advise him during the reappointment evaluation period, did not return a reporter's telephone call.
When the selection panel announced its low rating in June, Stein said Sorrell intended to submit a rebuttal to the White House. It was not known whether he did so.
The panel accused Sorrell of showing "poor judgment" and "lack of understanding" of his role. One focus of its report was on Sorrell's practice of routinely calling defense lawyers and prosecutors to closed meetings in his chambers before criminal trials to discuss pleas and sentences.
Several lawyers were quoted as reporting that Sorrell would give "almost precise forecasts of sentences" he would give if their clients pleaded guilty.
Earlier in the year, the judicial evaluation committee of the D.C. Bar rated Sorrell as unqualified for reappointment. It was the first time the committee ever had made such a determination about a sitting judge.
The committee said the jurist, "by his own admission, sacrified a number of values to what he regarded as the overriding goal of moving cases assigned to him through the court system."
In January 1974, less than five years after Sorrell had been appointed to the bench, The Washington Post reported that he had been censured secretly by the judicial tenure commission, allegedly for intervening with federal officials on behalf of a former business associate.
During the inquiry that led to that censure, it was disclosed that Sorrell received free use in 1970 and 1971 of a new gold-and-white Cadillac owned by a firm headed by his former associate.
In 1970, Sorrell ordered a youth charges with speeding to leave the court and get his shoulder-length hair cut. He ordered another youth sent to jail because the youth, a witness in a traffic case, fell asleep in the courtroom while waiting to testify.
He once ordered a man declared indigent by the courts to pay his own legal fee of $450. Another time, he declared in open court that he never had seen a prosecution witness lie, although he "found some defendants who had not told the truth."
Before his nomination by Nixon in 1969, Sorrell was a lawyer in private practice in Washington for about 20 years. A Republican, he was not active in politics.
A native Washingtonian, he received law degrees from National University law school, now part of George Washington University. He was a Navy lieutenant during World War II, serving in the Pacific theater.
He is a resident of University Park, in Prince George's County. D.C. judges are not required to live in the city.
By law, the D.C. Superior Court is authorized to have 42 active judges. At least five retired judges currently are serving on the bench.