One letter arrived from Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D.Tex.) only a few days after the bill was signed. It listed Bentsen's choices for the 10 new federal judgeships created in Texas.

Three other Democratic senators, Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, and Thomas McIntyre and John Durkin of New Hampshire, passed along their choices to the president even before he signed the bill.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.), likely new chairman of the judiciary committee, has made his picks too.

Today President Carter is expected to sign an executive order setting out the principles of "merit selection" by which he wants to fill the new federal judgeships Congress created this year.

The early birds in the Senate seem to be saying they don't need any help picking judges. They prefer the time honored practice, in which the Senate both "nominates" and confirms.

The judgeship bill authorized a 25 percent increase in the federal judiciary - 117 new district court judges and 35 for the courts of appeal. With so many political plums to pass out, one observer said it should have been called pork-bench.

The question is how far Carter can go toward fulfilling his campaign pledge for "merit selection" of all judges and prosecutors while dealing with the Senate's traditional control of patronage.

Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, himself a federal appeals court judge for 15 years, agrees that the Senate has long controlled the entire process. Being a political realist, he and the president decided at the beginning of the administration to try a gradual approach to breaking the Senate's hammerlock.

The first step was getting Sen. james O. Eastland (D-Miss.), retiring chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to agree that all appeals court candidates would be picked by commissions appointed by the president.

For picking district judges, senators were encouraged to set up similar commissions. Such voluntary commissions operate now in 18 states.

But there has been hostility from some senators. Bell recalls one unidentified senator who said a commission was "communistic." Bentsen told The Dallas Times Herald earlier this year:

"I am the merit commission for Texas."

Critics, on the other hand, pointed to the Eastland compromise as a deal that reneged on Carter's pledge that judicial appointments should be made strictly on merit "without any consideration of political aspects or influence."

The administration called the appeals court commissions a step in the right direction - especially since senators hold veto power over nominees through the notorious "blue slip." A senator has to sign a blue slip signifying approval of a judge from his state; under senatorial courtesy, withholding the blue slip kills the appointment.

The appeals court commission process ran into problems of its own, however, when the White House, in some instances, packed the panals with people owed political favors by the Carter campaign.

Perhaps the administration's least favorite example of this was the choice of Albany, Ga., attorney W. Spencer Lee IV as a member of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals selection commission.

The Justice Department had not included Lee's name as a potential member of the commission. But he is a boyhood friend and tennis buddy of Hamilton Jordan, Carter's top White House political aide, who reportedly added him to the list.

Lee is now under investigation for his part in allegedly trying to approach administration officials on behalf of fugitive financier Robert Vesco. He will not be a member of the 5th Circuit panel, Justice Department spokesman Terry Adamson said.

So far, Carter has filled 12 appeals court benches from candidates put forward by commissions. The procedure hasn't worked smoothly in every instance, though.

Justice Department officials winced, for instance, when Bell's choice from five candidates for the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was passed over by the president last fall after lobbying by House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.). The brother of Utah's Democratic congressman - another qualified candidate - got the job instead.

Bell is said to have consoled himself that at least the politicking was among commission-picked candidates.

The biggest blow to the Carter administration's "merit selection" promise involved a prosecutor rather than judge.

David W. Marston became a household word - and Republican candidate for governor - after he was sacked as U.S. attorney in Philadelphia by Bell early this year.

Marston had a reputation as a vigorous prosecutor of public officials of both parties. But he raised Bell's ire and quickly lost his job by going to the press with his fight to stay.

Ironically, Marston hadn't been replaced earlier because Justice refused to accept Pennsylvania Democrats' first choice for the job.

Despite the dificulties, Bell has said he feels the administration has made substantial progress. Of the 52 district judges appointed by Carter, 29 have been recommended by the commissions that senators have set up voluntarily in 18 states.

A district judge is paid $54,500, an appeals judge $57,500.

There are 523 federal judges on the bench today, as the process begins for adding 152 more. Of the 29 blacks and Hispanics now serving Carter has appointed 11, according to Justice Department figures. He has picked six of the nine women.

The challenge now, both Bell and Carter have said, is to make sure more minorities join other qualified candidates in having a real chance at the new judgeships.

Bell views the new process as the greatest remaining challenge of his tenure as attorney general, according to Adamson.

To that end, Bell plans this week to call senators personally to encourage creation of more voluntary commissions for screening district judge candidates. He also will be making chages to improve some of the existing appeals court selection commissions, Adamson said.

And in a push for more minorities, Bell already has asked Justice Department officials to start preparing andinventory of qualified blacks, women and Hispanics.

In the case of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considered a national court, Bell is writing state bar associations and sitting district judges, through their administrative offices, asking for applications for two new slots. There has not been an appointment to their prestigious panel since 1970, Adamson noted.

Interested outside groups, such as Common Cause and the National Women's political Caucus, have a watchful eye on the administration's efforts. The women's group already has said it expects a third of the 152 new judgships to be filled by women. Common Cause President David Cohen has written Carter suggesting changes in the proposed executive order to ensure more attention to minoriteis.

The real crunch, of course, will come if and when the administration runs into a senator who tries to run an unqualified croy through the process.

Justice officials claim it hasn't happened yet. Several groups have let it be known they'll be watching the Carter record as he picks 152 judges who will affect American life into the 21st century.