Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens yesterday sharply criticized two of his colleagues for attacking the character of an applicant to the Supreme Court bar without giving him a chance to defend himself.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor had publicly objected to the admission of a lawyer because of disciplinary actions once taken against the applicant in his home state of Colorado.
A $100 fee, a decent reference and admission to a home state bar admit a lawyer to the Supreme Court bar. The lawyer, in turn, receives a fancy certificate and the right to practice before the court.
The whole process is generally routine. In the past year, however, Burger periodically has published written dissents from an admission when he finds something objectionable about an applicant, saying that he objects to the use of the Supreme Court "imprimatur" to gloss over unethical activities.
The dissents become part of the permanent record of Supreme Court proceedings, distributed across the country to law firms and law libraries.
Yesterday Stevens became the first justice to challenge the practice. "Rubber-stamp approval" of an applicant "is not likely to cause any serious harm to anyone," Stevens wrote. "The same cannot be said, however, of ad hoc, ex parte one-sided evaluation of an applicant's character" by members of the Supreme Court.
If Burger thinks the Supreme Court should judge each person separately, Stevens said, "then the court should take steps to provide an applicant a fair hearing . . . ."
The exchange stemmed from one of two admissions Burger complained about yesterday. The chief justice, joined by O'Connor, wrote a four-page dissent about an application from Michael T. Rose on the grounds that Rose had once been denied admission to the Colorado bar for misrepresenting his qualifications. Subsequently, Rose was admitted to practice in Colorado.
"The applicant seeks admission merely to receive the stamp of approval from this court indicating that he has been in some way vindicated and cleansed of the stigma of his challenged prior conduct, a practice of 'laundering' that has become all too frequent in recent years," Burger said yesterday of the Rose application.
In response to Stevens' criticism, Burger wrote that each justice must evaluate an applicant independently and added, "It can hardly be said that those whose evaluation differs from that of the majority can be denied the right to dissent from the court's action."
In other action yesterday:
* The court ruled unanimously that political action committees are not entitled to expedited review of constitutional challenges to federal election laws. The ruling, in Bread Political Action Committee vs. Federal Election Commission, was written by O'Connor.
* The court agreed to consider when police can demand identification from pedestrians they consider suspicious. The case, Kolender vs. Lawson, stems from a challenge to a California law and could affect a similar controversy in the District of Columbia.
* The justices agreed to review the free speech rights of public employes. The case, Connick vs. Myers, arose from the dismissal of an assistant district attorney in Orleans Parish, La., after she circulated a questionnaire concerning working conditions in the district attorney's office.
* The court let stand a ruling closing off secret government files concerning unidentified flying objects. The ruling, by U.S. District Judge Gerhard Gesell, said the classified files of the National Security Agency were too sensitive for public release.