Only three of President Carter's five nominations for federal judgeships in Alabama went unscathed to the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.
The nomination of a state senior was rated "unqualified" by the American Bar Association, and that of a second Alabama man was delayed pending completion of an investigation into his background. Both nominees are black.
In Alabama, a state with a voter population 20 percent back but no black federal judges, the troubles besetting the two nominations have opened a political hornet's nest. Expansion of the crowded Fifth Circuit provided the Carter administration with an election-year bonus of five new district judgeships, and the president had said three years ago that he wanted more blacks on the federal bench.
Hence the aroused political expectations of Alabama blacks earlier this year, and the bitterness now attending the uncertain fortunes of the two black nominees.
Alabama's two U.S. senators, Democrats Howell Helfin and Donald Stewart, picked one white candidate each and jointly nominated a third white and two black attorneys with long records in civil rights litigation.
State Sen. U. W. Clemon of Birmingham has been rated "unqualified" by the ABA's judicial selection committee, said reasons for ratings would be revealed only at Senate confirmation hearings not yet scheduled. It is known that Clemon has been criticized locally for failing to report tax liens to the judicial nominating commission in Alabama.
Fred Gray of Tuskegee, by far the more controversial black nominee, remains the subject of additional investigation, according to Raven, who predicted completion of work on the Gray file in two or three weeks. Federal court record show that Gray had solicited clients to intervene in an antitrust case. The statute of limitations on possible wrong-doing by gray has run out. c
Whatever the merits of the nominees, the timing of the nominations in early January brought a bitter protest from Robert Kennedy Jr., in Alabama to work for the presidential compaign on his uncle Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, running in the March 11 primary here.
Kennedy chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee that reviews nominations for federal judgeships.
The names of Gray and Clemon, along with those of white attorneys Truman Hobbs, E. B. Haltom and Robert Probst, went to President Carter last spring. Although there were rumors then of immediate objections from the state bar association, Helfin and Stewart stood by their recommendations. tHelfin is a member of the Judiciary Committee.
But the nominations languished in the White House through the summer and fall. The ABA attorney in charge Frank Jones, a member of the same Atlanta law firm as former attorney general Griffin Bell.
Bell is said to have remained active in the Justice Department's investigation of Clemon and Gray even after he resigned and returned to Atlanta last summer. The White House remained quiet awaiting word from Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, Bell's successor.
Bell reportedly opposed the nominations until a personal visit in Atlanta from Joe Reed, black political leader who heads the Alabama Democratic Conference, the black branch of the Democratic Party organization.
Reed reported that during his visit to Altanta he "prayed with Bell . . . and explained some things to him." Bell dropped his objections thereafter and a White House spokesman said that the president would not be guided by ABA findings alone when nominating people for federal court vacancies.
It was frequently noted that the National Bar Association, a largely black association of lawyers, also reported one the two nominees and found them "very well qualified."
At this point, Civletti flew to Birmingham to meet with Clemon and Alabama's two U.S. senators. Soon after, the nominations were sent to the Senate.
Alabama's substantial black vote had been thought within the grasp of the Kennedy campaign before the White House announcement of the nominations, as Robert Kennedy angrily noted. But in addition to the support of Reed and his organization, President Carter also received the backing of Birmingham's Richard Arrington, first black mayor of the state's most populous city, after assurance of nominations.