THE QUESTION was full racial, political and judicial implications: should Theodore Newman, chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, be reappointed despite claims that he had an abrasive personality that may have been impairing the work of the court? The answer given last week by the District's Judicial Nomination Commission was "yes." But this case will not end with that decision. The reason the commission said "yes" was as important as the decision itself and will be the subject of many conversations around town late into the night. The suspicion will be that the decision was based on racial and political considerations. But a look at the arguments for and against Judge Newman, as they were reportedly presented to the judicial commission, strongly suggests that the commission had little choice but to reappoint Mr. Newman on an objective basis.
Such a decision on the reappointment of a chief judge must come down to the question of the court's record during his tenure as chief judge. Was it a record of instability and judicial incompetence and unfairness? If so, he should go. A secondary quesion is whether the chief judge's personality is so divisive that personal feuds among the judges are likely to cripple the courts in the future if he remains as chief judge. Still, the commission could not have predicted the future. All it could do was to decide -- on the basis of the court's public record -- if Mr. Newman's behavior actually had impeded the workings of the law in the past.
The evidence presented in Judge Newman's case apparently failed to show that he had corrupted the workings of the law. The heart of the opposition to his reappointment was that "[Mr. Newman] considered the court to be his personal fiefdom rather than recognizing that the proper role of a chief judge was that of being 'first among equals,'" in the words of one of his colleagues. Proof of this, according to Mr. Newman's opponents, was to be found in his desire to pull rank so he could write important decisions or his refusal to use retired judges because he felt their thinking might be out of date. Those actions may have lacked good sense, but they did not show instability, incompetence or unfairness in Mr. Newman's professional actions.
To deter any future feuding, however, the commission obtained a pledge from Judge Newman to "improve" his behavior and to work to "reunify the court." Those words must be translated into action. There is no place in the District's top court for a vindictive chief judge. From this case he should have learned that an abrasive personality can be a career obstacle even for someone with his high credentials.