The judicial evaluation committee of the D.C. Bar for the first time has found a sitting judge of the D.C. Superior Court unqualified for reappointment to the bench.
The committee's findings on Judge W. Byron Sorrell were released yesterday and were accompanied by results of a bar poll in which respondents had anonymity. The poll showed that 70 percent of lawyers who best know Sorrell rated him unfavorably on impartiality.
Fifty percent of those lawyers said they thought Sorrell, 59, should not be reappointed to a 15-year term on the local court when his current term expires next month.
The committee, which described itself as alarmed at the results of the poll, said in its report that "no candidate for reappointment in recent history has provoked the percentage o unfavorable reactions that have been given to the committee in the [Sorrell] case."
The committee submitted its report, and the poll results, to the city's Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure. The commission makes the final evaluation of judicial performance and then sends its recommendation on reappointment to the president.
The bar committee's findings, which are considered highly influential, are included in several surveys and evaluations submitted to the commission for review during evaluation of a local judge. All evaluation reports by the bar committee are public record.
In a strongly worded, 10-page report, the committee described Sorrell as hardworking and diligent. But, the committee said, "Judge Sorrell has, by his own admission, sacrificed a number of values to what he regarded as the overriding goal of moving cases assigned to him through the court system."
The committee said it recognized the "difficulties under which judge Sorrell has labored" in dealing with the Superior Court's heavy criminal caseload. However, the committee said, Sorrell "has too often cut off counsel, pressed for pleas and settlements and looked for short cuts in order to expedite the calendar . . ."
One of the "most disturbing" aspects of Sorrell's judicial practice, the committee said, "has been that of conducting extensive conferences with lawyers, and sometimes even with litigants in his chambers."
Sorrell, a civil lawyer before he was appointed to the Superior Court 10 years ago, "has not fully appreciated the difference between conducting settlement negotiations in a civil suit as opposed to plea negotiations in a criminal suit.
The committee, which interviewed Sorrell at length in preparation of its report, said that he failed to appreciate "the enormous leverage that a judge exerts over a defendant in a criminal case."
The committee said it also found that Sorrell had allowed his personal tastes and opinions to "intrude on his courtroom conduct."
During his interview with the bar committee, Sorrell acknowledged "that he had committed errors during his tenure on the bench," the report said.
"Judge Sorrell seemed particularly struck by the lopsided responses to the questionnaire," the report said. "He expressed strongly his feeling that he could, and would, correct these problems in the future."
"While the committee admired Judge Sorrell's forthrightness in admitting errors," the report concluded, "the committee was less confident than Judge Sorrell that the problem could be cured in the future."
In his chambers at Superior Court yesterday, Sorrell read the committee's findings for the first time. "As I understand it, these questionnaires were anonymous and unsigned," he told a reporter. "There was no way [the committee] could confirm that these attorneys actually appeared before me in court."
Sorrell said he would decline to comment on specific terms in the memorandum "until I've had time to look it over and give it some thought."
Along with the report and the poll, the committee yesterday released five letters, each signed by an attorney, which supported Sorrell's reappointment to the Superior Court. The committee also released two letters in opposition to Sorrell's reappointment, both also signed by attorneys. A single, unsigned letter in opposition to Sorrell's reappointment also was released by the committee but was not included in the committee's evaluation of Sorrell.
It was understood yesterday that while the Judical Tenure Commission considers the poll of lawyers, more weight is given to written comments signed by individual lawyers.
The Washington Post reported in January 1974 that Sorrell was secretly censured by the commission for allegedly intervening with federal officials in the spring of 1972 on behalf of one of Sorrell's former business associates.
Sorrell, a Republican who was appointed to the bench for a 10-year term by President Nixon in 1969, frequently has made controversial rulings in his court.
In 1970, Sorrell ordered a youth, charged with speeding, to leave the court and get his shoulder-length hair cut. Sorrell ordered another youth jailed because the youth, a witness in a traffic case, fell asleep in the courtroom.
Sorrell once ordered a man declared indigent by the courts to pay his own legal fees - $450 - and once said in open court that he had never seen a prosecution witness lie although he had "found some defendants who had not told the truth."
In its report, the bar committee noted that some lawyers had complained that Sorrell was biased against the poor, an allegation the judge strongly denied. The committee noted that Sorrell told them that he came from a poor background, but, the committee said, Sorrell's comments reflected resentment of "advantages that today's poor enjoy over people who experienced poverty 30 years ago."
The chairman of the bar's judicial evaluation committee is attorney Sara Ann Determan. The committee members, all of who are lawyers, are Mark Foster, Steffen W. Graae, Peter Kolker, Mellie H. Nelson, Ruth Hankins Nesbitt and Thomas H. Queen.