Reagan administration officials yesterday presented Senate leaders with a long list of prospective candidates for the Supreme Court, but sources said that conservative U.S. Appeals Court Judge Robert H. Bork remains the firm choice of the White House and the Justice Department.
White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and Attorney General Edwin Meese III gave an alphabetical list of 10 names to Senate leaders in two meetings in which they stressed the importance of congressional consultation. Baker, a former Senate majority leader, was said to be especially sensitive to frequent congressional criticisms of lack of administration consultation on various issues.
A senior official who said that Bork remains the leading candidate added that the decision is "not sewn up." Meese said that President Reagan has not made a decision and "the whole matter is open."
But White House officials said Reagan will act quickly, probably this week, to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., often a swing vote in crucial court decisions. This also was the view at the Justice Department, where spokesman Terry H. Eastland said, "The appointment could be announced as early as tomorrow. The latest it will be would be sometime next week."
Administration sources called the list of candidates "pro forma" and said the consultations were aimed at seeing whether Bork, 60, who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, draws serious objections from senators.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said that he and Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) had "a very friendly meeting" with Meese and Baker but warned afterward that there may be trouble ahead for the administration if Reagan names a highly conservative nominee.
Biden said there were some "very good people on the list" and others who are "viewed as having very hard edges. If one of them is chosen, it will be a very hot summer and a very hot fall." He declined to say whether Bork was one of the prospective nominees who would cause a problem.
Earlier, Baker and Meese met with Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. Thurmond has been pushing the selection of William W. Wilkins, a federal appeals court judge from South Carolina, to replace Powell, the only southerner on the court.
Wilkins' name was on the list, which contained two other southerners, Patrick E. Higginbotham, a federal appeals judge from Dallas, and Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.). Heflin said in an interview Monday that if any senator is tapped, it is likely to be Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), whose name was also on the list.
"It'd be like lightning striking," Heflin said of his own chances.
Meanwhile, liberal groups operating on the assumption that Bork's nomination was all but announced, prepared a counterattack. Representatives of 40 organizations belonging to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights met yesterday to discuss a strategy for defeating Bork or a similarly conservative nominee.
Liberal activists called Senate Judiciary Committee members and met with their staffs, urging them not to commit themselves on Bork or another conservative, and launched letter-writing campaigns. The liberals also started to research Bork's writings and opinions during his five years on the appeals court.
"We're going to wage an all-out frontal assault like you've never seen before on this nominee, assuming it's Bork," said Kate Michelman of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
The response contrasted sharply with the reaction of the groups last year to the nominations of Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Civil rights and other liberal groups did not vigorously oppose Scalia. And the campaign against Rehnquist's elevation to chief justice did not coalesce until weeks after his nomination.
If Bork or a similarly conservative individual is nominated, said Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal lobbying group, "There will be a mass mobilization."
"There's no question that a Bork nomination or the nomination of anyone who would put in jeopardy the court's achievements of the past three decades would trigger the most controversial and confrontational legislative battle of the Reagan years," said Ralph Neas of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Among the documents circulating among the civil rights groups was a 1963 New Republic article in which Bork, then a professor at Yale Law School, assailed proposed "public accommodations laws" requiring that hotels, restaurants and other establishments serve blacks.
Such a law, Bork said, "means a loss in a vital area of personal liberty . . . . The legislature would inform a substantial body of the citizenry that in order to continue to carry on the trades in which they are established they must deal with and serve persons with whom they do not wish to associate."
In the meetings yesterday on Capitol Hill, neither Meese nor Baker indicated a preference for any of the candidates on the list, which Biden said includes two women.
"They solicited feedback on all of the nominees and did not elaborate whether any individual was ranked over another," said Mark Goodin, spokesman for Thurmond.
A Republican source said that the insistence of Thurmond and others on being consulted may have been one of the reasons for the longer list but added, "I'll be stunned if it ain't Bork."
Another source said that he expects Reagan to select Bork but that the consultations yesterday were "a necessary element in determining confirmability" of Bork and other conservatives.
Staff writers Helen Dewar, David Hoffman and Ruth Marcus contributed to this article.