President Reagan has abolished the judicial nominating commissions designed by President Carter to broaden the base for picking appointments to the nation's courts of appeals.
Reagan rescinded the executive orders establishing the panels on Tuesday without any official announcement. Thomas DeCair, a Justice Department spokesman, said yesterday that administration officials felt the commissions weren't needed to fill the nine vacancies now existing in the federal appellate courts. A long-term selection mechanism hasn't been agreed on yet, he added.
When President Carter and Attorney General Griffin B. Bell set up the commissions for the 11 circuits in 1978, it was seen as an effort to take the patronage plum away from members of the Senate who traditionally recommended political supporters for the prestigious posts. During his term, Carter named 56 of the 132 federal appellate judges.
Bell got James O. Eastland (D-Miss.), then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to agree to have senators use the presidentially appointed commissions to find appeals court judges. Senators kept their powerful voice in selecting district court judge nominees from their states, although many created their own commissions voluntarily.
Anne Macrory, a Washington attorney who monitored the Carter process for the Judicial Selection Project, said yesterday she was disappointed but not surprised by the Reagan administration's action. "It looks like we're right back to square one, to total Senate control, with all the progress out the window," she said.
The American Judicature Society studied the Carter appeals court appointments and concluded, "There has been almost universal praise for the quality of President Carter's nominees."
Critics of the Carter program noted that the selection commissions were often packed with Carter convention delegates or friends, and that 98 percent of those recommended were Democrats. In one case, Carter turned down the commission recommendation that Archibald Cox, a favorite of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), fill a vacancy on the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Bell said Cox was too old. Kennedy aides viewed it as a partisian slap at a presidential rival.
In another incident, the apparent winner of a seat on the Tenth Circuit was rejected at the last minute after House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) intervened for the brother of Utah Rep. Gunn McKay.
Macrory agreed that the Carter commissions were political, but said that system's main advantage was "to open the process up to qualified people who never considered themselves eligible before."
Carter appointed more blacks and women to the federal bench than any other president did, and more than 40 percent of the federal judges now sitting.
Justice spokesman DeCair said abolition of the appeals court selection commissions doesn't mean that the Reagan administration will abandon a broad search for judicial candidates. "Watch what we do," he said. "We don't intend to lessen the effort to find qualified women and minorities."