Both candidates who have applied for a vacancy in the Fairfax County Circuit Court are black, meaning Virginia's largest and busiest court will probably receive its first black judge.
Marcus D. Williams, 37, a judge in Fairfax General District Court, and Gerald Bruce Lee, 38, an Alexandria lawyer, were the only two applicants who filed for the position by last Friday's deadline.
County lawyers and officials call both candidates well qualified, pointing to Williams's experience as a prosecutor, assistant county attorney and judge, and Lee's 14 years as a general practice trial lawyer.
Circuit Court judges are appointed by the General Assembly, which usually follows the recommendations of the affected local delegation, but the governor can make interim appointments.
Lee is a law partner of Del. Bernard S. Cohen (D-Alexandria) and was an active supporter of Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's election campaign.
"I think they are both excellent choices," said Jerry M. Phillips, a Fairfax lawyer and past president of the Fairfax Bar Association, which will interview the candidates and send its recommendations to the General Assembly's Courts of Justice committees.
Several lawyers said yesterday that Fairfax's Circuit Court, with 13 judges and an increasingly crowded docket, has been too long without a minority member.
Many said that members of the Northern Virginia legislative delegation had let it be known that they wanted to appoint a minority candidate for this vacancy, created by the retirement of Judge Lewis H. Griffith.
"I think it's no secret the delegation was going to be looking for a minority since the bench in Fairfax County is without a black judge," Phillips said. There are 17 black judges statewide.
Although the appointment of a black to the Circuit Court bench would be historic for the county, which has a white population of about 89 percent, several lawyers and officials said race should not overshadow the qualifications of Williams and Lee.
"We're beyond this in Fairfax," said Del. Leslie L. Byrne (D-Fairfax). "We're looking for qualified judges. Race ceased to be an issue a long time ago, just as gender ceased to be an issue a long time ago."
When Williams was appointed to General District Court -- the lower court in Fairfax -- in 1987, he became the county's first black judge. Before his appointment, Williams spent two years as an assistant commonwealth's attorney and seven years as an assistant in the County Attorney's Office.
Williams is a 1977 graduate of Catholic University law school and teaches legal studies in the School of Business Administration at George Mason University.
Lee, who was one of three candidates recommended by the judicial bar association committee in 1988 when there were two vacancies on the Circuit Court, is regarded by some as one of the area's best lawyers, with extensive criminal and civil litigation experience.
Lee is a 1976 graduate of American University law school and is a member of the Virginia State Bar Council, which regulates the ethical and judicial conduct of lawyers practicing in the state.
"They both possess the personal and the intellectual attributes of first-rate circuit judges," said William Dolan, a Fairfax lawyer. "One of the distinguishing features between Gerald Lee and Marcus Williams is the kinds of experience . . . . It becomes a question for the bar and legislature to make a decision when comparing backgrounds on which would you prefer to see on the Circuit Court bench."
Williams declined to comment yesterday. Lee, asked about his political connections, said that his law partner Cohen "will not participate in the delegation's deliberation on the judgeship. In 1988, he didn't participate in the deliberations. I was not appointed in 1988." Lee said he has "no official connection" to Wilder, only that he worked in fund-raisers and did volunteer work for the Democratic Party. "That doesn't rise to the level of having a relationship," Lee said.