President Reagan, according to knowledgeable sources, plans to propose a federal judgeship for Samuel T. Currin, the U.S. attorney in Raleigh and a former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), although Currin's proposed nomination to the bench two years ago sparked a controversy.
Helms, who has been promoting Currin for the U.S. district court seat in North Carolina, said he will not formally recommend Currin until January because there is no way the nomination could be approved before the Senate adjourns. But sources say that the White House has already submitted Currin's name to the American Bar Association for review and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has made a preliminary background check.
When Helms first proposed Currin's nomination in 1984, a group of 25 North Carolina attorneys criticized him as having too little trial experience to be a judge and for what they described as a pattern of questionable conduct. This year the group circulated an 80-page memo criticizing Currin's conduct in office, including alleged leaking of unsubstantiated allegations.
"The gentleman is not qualified by experience or by temperament," Raleigh attorney David W. Long, a Republican and member of the group, said yesterday. "He is not tolerant of those who don't share his views. He's a bit of a zealot when it comes to religious issues."
Helms temporarily shelved the nomination in 1984 after Currin's opponents were joined by a prominent conservative, James H. Pou Bailey, senior judge on the Wake County (N.C.) Superior Court and an old friend of Helms.
"I can conceive of no more dangerous a person than a fanatic with power," Bailey said. "If he is appointed a judge, that's what we would have . . . . I personally believe Sam Currin would use any method for any purpose he thought was right."
Helms said this week that Bailey's 1984 comments were misguided and that other opponents' criticisms were "entirely political. I think they were aiming at me instead of Sam."
Helms said Currin has aggressively prosecuted drug and pornography cases. "Sam is highly regarded at the Justice Department," he said. "He's a skillful lawyer. He's done an outstanding job as U.S. attorney. He's been scrupulously fair."
The White House could abandon the nomination if Currin fails to win an ABA endorsement. But its decision to submit Currin's name shows that the administration is not backing away from controversial judicial candidates in the wake of the bitter battle over Daniel A. Manion, whose nomination to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago won Senate approval by a 50-to-49 margin.
Currin, 36, who has been U.S. attorney since 1981, will make no comment while his nomination is being considered, a spokesman said.
"They'd be nuts to send Currin up here," a Democratic Senate aide said. "When you have that type of opposition in your back yard, you're dead."
But Helms said Currin has picked up support from some liberal lawyers. He said he recently gave Attorney General Edwin Meese III a letter from an activist Democrat, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who praised Currin for "vigorous prosecution" of two Ku Klux Klan leaders and called him "impartial to a fault."
Among criticisms of Currin, according to local press accounts:Shortly before the 1984 elections, Currin's office distributed a memo to election officials warning that fraud would be prosecuted. State election officials said the memo was full of inaccuracies, such as an assertion that payments to people who drive voters to the polls are illegal. A Raleigh News & Observer editorial called it "nothing short of scandalous that Currin's office would issue so faulty a memorandum, a document cleared aimed at quashing legal Election Day activity."
Just before the 1982 elections, Currin's office publicized unsubstantiated allegations about questionable loans to a Democratic House member.
A Christmas letter, mailed to the entire community in 1984 at government expense, spoke of "the true kingdom and its truths established long ago by the life of a baby born in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." It was signed "Samuel T. Currin and Staff."
A memo purportedly initialed by Currin called for regular voluntary prayer meetings by employes in the U.S. attorney's office. A subsequent memo from a Currin aide said there would be no such meetings.
At a personnel hearing, according to the lawyers' group, Currin cited unsubstantiated rumors about the personal life of a paralegal in his office as the reason he fired her.