David L. Bazelon, the controversial and liberal jurist who was the chief judge of the nine-member U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here for the last 15 years, relinquished his administrative title yesterday to fellow appeals court Judge J. Skelly Wright.
In a brief statement that he hand-delivered Monday morning to the other eight judges, Bazelon said he was stepping down from the chief judgeship because he felt he had served in that role "long enough." The 68-year-old judge will remain as an active judge on the bench that he first joined in 1949 as the youngest person ever named to a federal judgeship. no vacancy will be created by his decision to give up his title.
However, the announcement could be viewed as the end of an era for the so-called "Bazelon court" - seen by many as the nation's most liberal and innovative judicial body, a court that became over the past decade or two the acourge of criminal prosecutors and the beloved ally of liberal advocacy lawyers.
Bazelon guided the court through its most active days in the mid- and late-1960s when it was reviewing regularly criminal convictions in Washington, and he focused heavily on the rights of criminal defendants against improper governmental techniques of search and seizure. He became known as well for his precedent-setting opinions in the area of insanity defenses.
In recent years, the cases before the appeals court here have changed drastically. It is becoming a truly "national" court, according to numerous legal observers, because of the immense number of governmental actions it reviews - either on appeal from lower courts or directly from government agencies.
A listing of major Bazelon opinions in his more than 28 years on the bench would - and do, in some instances - take pages of legal text-books.
For example, he struck down almost everything the government had done to prosecute the 12,000 people arrested in Washington during the May Day antiwar demonstrations, ordered major reconsideration of the contrversial Amchitka nuclear tests in Alaska, issued major rulings that ultimately led to the blocking of the Three Sisters Bridge here, was involved in numerous Watergate decisions, and limited the cross-ownership of broadcasting stations and newspapers in the same town.
The new chief judge, J. Skelly Wright, is seen as just as liberal as Bazelon in most respects but does not bear many of the abrasive personal mannerisms that Bazelon's critics have said bitterly divided the court along personal lines under Bazelon.
Wright also is seen as a better-than-average court administrator, an area in which Bazelon privately admitted his shortcomings. The court has been criticized for its backlog and length of time it takes to release opinions.
Wright said yesterday in an interview that while its backlog problems stems from a complex caseload and the personal and largely unsupervisable work habits of individual judges, he belives it is an area "we can do something about. It is one of the goals worth achieving."
Wright, who is known locally for his "Wright decree" that reshaped the District's school system in the late 1960s, would be unlikely to effect any amjor changes in the philosophical tone of the court between now and the time he is scheduled to step down as chief judge in 1981, according to lawyers who practice regularly before the panel.
However, they pointed out that the high visibility of the U.S. Circuit chief judge here - the highest ranking federal judicial officer in the District below the Supreme Court level - does speak out on various legal issues through speeches and congressional testimony.
Although Bazelon recently underwent an operation, he reportedly emphasized to his fellow judges that his health continues to be fine and was not a factor in his decision to relinquish the chief judgeship.
"He just said 16 years as chief judge was long enough for anyone," said one federal judge who talked to Bazelon Monday. "I think that during his recent indisposition, he's had time to think and has decided to use his time for matters he considers more pressing."
Although the chief judgeship is largely a titular role based on seniority, it does include a large amount of daily, time-consuming paperwork, some judges said yesterday.
Some judges theorized that Bazelon also decided to step down as chief judge so Wright could be chief judge longer than the one year and 4 months he would hold that title if Bazelon kept it until his 70th birthday in September 1979. Bazelon and Wright are ideologically close and Bazelon is reportedly more friendly with Wright than with many of the other appellate judges here.
Bazelon himself could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Discussion of the Bazelon court usually revolve around his extremely "activist" approach to applying the law to social conditions, his outspoken viewpoint on liberal causes, and his strong personality.
People are seldom neutral about Bazelon. His detractors speak in derogatory and accusatory terms about what they see as his "aid" to criminals in D.C. and his supporters praise what they see as his brave espousing of compassionate liberalism in the "law and order" days of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In some liberal academic circles, Bazelon is credtied with helping begin a "revolution" in criminal law by appointing distinguished civil and criminal lawyers to seemingly meaningless cases. Such appointments, closely scrutinized by Baselon himself, often resulted in unusual alternatives being presented to the court for a fresh application of new and old theories.
Bazelon's name is considered "almost sacred" at some liberal law institutions, said some lawyers, but his opinions reportedly are studied carefully at conservative institutions as well.
Persons who have clerked for Bazelon say that he is a demanding task-master who is brutally, frank with his staff members, but who can at the same time be extremely generous to them and concerned about their personal lives.
Bazelon, who grew up in Chicago, was appointed to the bench by President Truman after holding several Justice Department appointments for about three years. Wright has been on the U.S. Court of Appeals here since 1962, and before that was a U.S. District judge in New Orleans.