With none of the fanfare that surrounds a Supreme Court appointment, President Reagan is nominating his kind of guy -- conservative, white and male -- to federal district and circuit courts.
While Reagan's nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court has excited enormous publicity, very little attention has been focused on the candidates for other positions on the federal bench. O'Connor, as a woman and political moderate, appears to be an anomaly for a Reagan judicial appointment.
All of the 12 federal judges Reagan so far has nominated are white men. Of the others who are known to be likely nominees, one is a black and one is a woman.
This contrasts sharply with the record of former president Carter, who selected 41 women and 37 blacks for the U.S. district and appeals courts -- more than any other president in history.
It also contrasts with Reagan's promise last Oct. 14, during the election campaign, when he said: "I will also seek out women to appoint to other federal courts in an effort to bring about a better balance on the federal bench."
Most of Reagan's nominees appear to be well-qualified, respected lawyers who are conservative Republicans. In telephone interviews, almost all said they favored restraint and opposed concentration of power in the federal judiciary.
While the judiciary is not as directly susceptible to presidential influence as Congress, Reagan's sweeping successes in shrinking the role of the federal government could apply to the bench. Because the judges are appointed for life, and checked only by a Supreme Court that may in a few years also be laden with Reagan appointees, the president's impact on the judiciary could be more lasting than his far-reaching budget and tax revisions.
Reagan now has about 55 federal court vacancies to fill, and many more are expected.
Democratic watchdogs in Congress said they have no basis for opposing the individuals nominated by Reagan, because they have excellent credentials. None of the nominees has been blatantly unqualified; most, on the contrary, have been pillars of the legal profession.
"We're a little alarmed we've seen so few women coming through so far," said Kathy Wilson, who heads the National Women's Political Caucus. "While we commend the president for nominating Sandra O'Connor, we in the women's movement don't feel we've been thrown a bone."
Elaine R. Jones, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, added that a greater concern is that some white male nominees may be insensitive to issues of racism or sexism.
But Bruce E. Fein, an associate deputy attorney general who is helping in the search for Reagan nominees, said he expects more women and minorities to be nominated to the federal bench -- on the basis of merit only, he stressed. "Our view is that the law is, and should be, color-blind, and we look at merit," he said.
"We look for those with the judicial philosophy of the president and those who frown on policy-making from the bench," Fein added. He said the administration also looks at the political party of the prospective nominees.
Fein said the administration for the most part is deferring to Republican senators in selecting U.S. district court judges from their states, while at the appeals court level the administration looks for its own candidate. In the past, presidents generally deferred to senators for nominees to both district and appeals courts.
District judges try federal cases, and earn $67,100 per year. Judges on a circuit court of appeals weigh appeals of cases that have a bearing on federal law or the Constitution, and earn $70,900.
Because the judgeships are life positions, they often have been used as political patronage to reward supporters of senators of the president's party. Administration officials insist that this has not happened this year, but some of the nominees have been active Republicans.
For example, William W. Wilkins Jr. was nominated and confirmed by the Senate on the recommendation of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Wilkins, who at 39 is the youngest of the Reagan nominees, was state director of Thurmond's Senate campaign in 1972 and worked for the campaign again in 1978. Wilkins also is the only Republican elected as a solicitor, a prosecuting attorney, in South Carolina since Reconstruction.
But a White House official noted that Wilkins was editor-in-chief of the University of South Carolina Law Review, clerked for a respected appeals judge and had extensive legal experience. Wilkins should not be penalized for his political experience, the official said.
Notwithstanding the calls in the 1980 Republican Party platform for judges who oppose abortion, none of the nominees said they had been asked their views on abortion.
The best known candidate for a federal judgeship is Robert H. Bork, the solicitor general under former president Nixon, who probably will be nominated to the Appeals Court for the District of Columbia. Bork, 54, is a respected scholar of constitutional and antitrust law. He taught at Yale University Law School before coming to Washington recently to join the firm of Kirkland & Ellis.
The only black known to be a probable nominee is Lawrence W. Pierce, who is a U.S. district judge in Manhattan and would be elevated to an appeals court. Pierce, 56, is a Republican who was graduated from St. Joseph's College and Fordham University Law School.
The sole woman known to be a strong contender for a judgeship is Cynthia H. Hall, 52, whom Nixon appointed to the U.S. Tax Court in 1972. A Los Angeles native, she attended Stanford University and Stanford Law School, and earned an advanced law degree at New York University Law School. She also was a clerk to a U.S. Court of Appeals judge.