Top presidental aides have backed off their proposed nomination of N.Y. prosecutor Thomas P. Puccio as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia in the face of strong local opposition. Instead, Judge Stanley S. Harris of the D.C. Court of Appeals has emerged as the leading candidate for the post.
Reagan administration sources said yesterday that Harris, 53, a native Washingtonian and an appeals court judge for 10 years, became a contender for the job after Washington lawyers, a majority of the members of the D.C. City Council and bar leaders here criticized plans to nominate someone from outside the nation's capital.
"The local bar made its strong feelings known that they thought there should be a local person filling the job," one White House official said yesterday.
According to another administration source, the "sensitivity of the local bar was a very legitimate concern that we didn't pay attention to beforehand and should have."
Puccio, reached last night, declined to comment. Harris said he would agree to accept the post if asked, but added that he had not formally been offered the job.
Sources said yesterday that Harris' possible selection would be discussed late today at a regularly scheduled meeting of key Justice Department and White House aides who review proposed appointments and make recommendations to the president.
It was at one of those same sessions on Sept. 10 that the aides agreed to select Puccio. But that recommendation was never sent to President Reagan for formal nomination and Senate confirmation.
The aides had expected an outpouring of public and congressional support for Puccio, the head of the Justice Department's Brooklyn strike force who directed the successful Abscam prosecutions against seven members of Congress. There were no acceptable local candidates for the top prosecutor's position, the aides said then.
But support for the choice never materialized. As soon as Puccio's pending selection became known, local bar leaders voiced opposition, and at the suggestion of the White House, proposed other candidates.
Judge Harris, who emerged as a possibility in the last week, seemed to fit neatly into the administration's search for a conservative, local Republican, with extensive experience as a private lawyer and with the local courts. Harris has never been a prosecutor.
Moreover, lawyers said yesterday that Harris' candidacy for U.S. attorney is strengthened by his willingness to step down from a 15-year appointment to the city's appellate court (which expires in 1987) to supervise 150 lawyers in the federal prosecutor's office.
Several other local lawyers favored for the job by the administration said they could not afford the cut in salary if they were to abandon their lucrative law practices. Harris, who now earns $63,810, would take a pay cut of about $11,000.
Harris, whose father Stanley R. (Bucky) Harris led the old Washington Senators to the American League baseball championship and the World Series in 1924, graduated from Wilson High School in 1945, and earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Virginia.
In 1952, Harris worked as a legal assistant at the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling, and a year later joined the law firm of Hogan & Hartson, long a mainstay in Washington legal circles. He worked there for 17 years.
In 1971, president Richard Nixon appointed Harris to be a judge on what was then the newly organized D.C. Superior Court, where Harris served until September 1972, when he was elevated by Nixon to the local appellate court.
On the appeals court, Harris was viewed as a powerful member of the conservative wing of the bench, which last year became embroiled in a bitter controversy over the reappointment of Theodore R. Newman Jr. as chief judge of that court.
Harris was one of four judges who testified last year before the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission against Newman's reappointment.
Harris first came to the attention of the Reagan administration last summer when his name came up for a seat on the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the federal appellate bench.
The administration, however, is expected to nominate former U.S. solicitor general Robert H. Bork for that judgeship.
Sources have said that Puccio, 37, was the first choice because of his long experience as a federal prosecutor (12 years), the nationwide exposure he gained as a result of the Abscam cases and his skill at managing complicated and sensitive prosecutions, particularly those involving narcotics. He was involved in the prosecution of some police corruption cases that grew out of the French Connection heroin smuggling investigation in New York.
Lawyers who had opposed his nomination and administration aides emphasized that the weight of the opposition focused on the fact that Puccio was an outsider and not on his professional performance.
The emergence of Harris' candidacy is the latest development in what has turned into a six-month search to fill the U.S. attorney's job, now held by Charles F.C. Ruff. Although Ruff was appointed by president Jimmy Carter in 1979 to a four-year term, the U.S. attorney serves at the discretion of the president.
For several months, attention focused on two candidates -- Paul Friedman, a partner in the Washington office of White & Case, and Joseph diGenova, chief counsel to the Senate Rules Committee.
Yesterday, diGenova, who had wide support from powerful Republican senators, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), said he was "absolutely delighted" with the possibility that Harris would get the job.
"I will support him 100 percent," diGenova said.