U.S. District Court Chief Judge William B. Jones announced yesterday that he will retire from full-time status, creating the first vacancy on the federal trial court here in more than five years.
Four other judges on the court also are eligible to leave fulltime duty soon, which would give President Carter an opportunity to appoint one-third of the 15 judges on the nationally influential court.
In addition, Carter will probably have an opportunity to reshape the federal Court of Appeals here. Four members of that court either are already eligible for retirement from active duty or will soon become eligible to step down, and that nine-member court also has a request pending in Congress for three additional judgeships.
Both Federal Courts here have been regarded in recent years as active and innovative panels that have often issured opinions setting precedents on a wide range of issues. More than half the cases brought before the two courts involve the federal government either as a defendant or plaintiff, and affect federal policy throughout the nation.
Observers have said they feel the kind of appointments Carter makes to the courts here may be an indication of the kind of judicial temperament he is looking for on the Supreme Court, as well as other federal courts across the country.
In addition, if a bill authorizing more than 100 new federal judges nationwide is approved by Congress, Carter would be in position of appointing an unprecedented number of new federal judges.
It is not clear how the appointments of federal judges will be made here. The selection process is complicated by the fact the District of Columbia is a federal enclave and by the fact that court rulings here often have national impact.
In the states, it has been traditional for the senior U.S. senator of the President's party to exercise significant influence in appointments of federal judges.
President Carter has endorsed a plan in which appellate federal judges throughout the nation would be chosen from a list presented by commissions in each of the 11 appellate circuits. He also has indicated he favors revamping the manner in which senators back lawyers for the federal trial courts.
In the past, federal trial court judges here were largely seen as jurists dealing with a high volume of criminal cases and relatively few major, complex civil suits.
However, with President Nixon's court reorganization, the majority of criminal cases are now handled in the D.C. Superior Court system. The federal judges, as a result, are handling a large volume of time-consuming cases involving such issues as environmental law, employment discrimination and freedom of information.
According to several lawyers who have observed the process, appointments to the federal bench here have often tended to be highly partisan "political payoffs" by Presidents for favored politicians - a trend that has produced what many lawyers call an uneven quality.
Chief Judge Jones, who is generally regarded as one of the top three judges on the federal bench here, said yesterday he is retiring from full time duty on his 70th birthday March 20 because "younger men or younger women are needed to come into this challenging court.
"I would hope that the Department of Justice and President Carter would see fit to put distinguished lawyers and conpetent people on this court. There is interesting work to be done here," he said.
When Judge Jones steps down he will assume senior status, which means he can hear cases but will not work full-time.
Four other judges on the trial court are 70 years of age or older and are eligible for retirement. They are Judges John J. Sirica, George L. Hart Jt., Howard Corcoran and Oliver Gasch.
Those four, except Sirica are in relatively good health. Sirica, the Watergate judge, suffered a massive heart attack more than a year ago and recently suffered a relapse during the cold weather.
A sixth opening could occur shortly on the federal trial court if Judge Joseph C. Waddy decides to retire on medical disability. Waddy, who suffers from emphysema, has denied rumors he plans to step down.
The U.S. Court of Appeals has four judges either nearing the age of 70 or who have served more than 15 years in the federal judiciary, making them eligible for senior status.
U.S. Circuit Chief Judge David L. Bazelon, who has been a member of that court for 27 years, is 67 years old and reportedly has no plans for stepping aside. The same is said to be true of U.S. Circuit Judge J. Skelly Wright, who is 66 years old and has been a federal trial or appellate judge for 27 years.
Two members of the appellate court either are 70 or will reach 70 this year, but both are Nixon appointees who have not served the 10 years needed for full retirement benefits. U.S. Circuit Judge George A. MacKinnon turned 70 last year and U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Robb is 70 in July.
The turnover that occurs in the next few years will be the largest on the federal courts here since the eight years of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In the 1960s, the two Democratic presidents appointed 15 federal judges here.