WASHINGTON — About once a week, usually on Thursday afternoons, half a dozen top White House and Justice Department officials meet to perform a little-noticed but profoundly important task: selecting, from among hundreds of candidates, those who will be recommended to President Reagan for nomination as federal judges.
It is not an idle job. By 1989, when his second term ends, Reagan will have had an opportunity to make far more appointments to the federal judiciary than any other President. Already, he has appointed 31 judges to the regional U.S. appellate courts--or 23% of the judges now sitting--and 130 to the District Court bench--26% of those sitting.
Record for Appointments
This year alone, Reagan will make at least 115 more nominations to the federal bench--surpassing the record 262 that Jimmy Carter made in his four-year tenure. Assuming a normal turnover rate, Reagan will have filled more than half of the 744 federal appeals and District Court judgeships by the end of his second term.
Thus, although Justice Sandra Day O'Connor remains his only Supreme Court appointment so far, Reagan already has put a deep and lasting imprint on the rest of the federal judiciary--the appeals and trial courts that dispose of the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of criminal and civil cases brought each year.
And, unlike some presidential appointees, who have taken surprising turns once they reached the federal bench, Reagan's choices by and large are exercising just the kind of "judicial restraint" that this President advocates--interpreting the law narrowly, deferring to legislators and other government policy-makers and refusing to declare broad new individual rights.
In the process, the President has cheered conservatives and others who share his philosophy and his views on public policy questions. He also has spread concern and dismay among civil rights groups, public-interest lawyers and other activists who fear that Reagan nominees could dominate the federal courts for decades on such politically sensitive issues as abortion, affirmative action and the rights of criminal defendants.
The Alliance for Justice, a coalition of liberal groups, is forming a watchdog unit that will monitor the Administration's nominations--looking into each candidate's background, organizational associations, legal writings or previous judicial record. They will be seeking any evidence that nominees are biased against women and minorities or unfairly resistant to class-action suits and other attempts to bring social reforms through legal action.
Any such evidence would be turned over to American Bar Assn. officials reviewing the nominations or to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must clear any nominees submitted by the Administration for Senate confirmation.
"We were very concerned that this Administration has chosen people based more on ideology than merit," said Susan Liss, a Washington attorney who is directing the project. "Our aim is that the judiciary remain an independent third branch of government and not so directly reflect the political views of the President."
Fewer Blacks Appointed
There is also widespread criticism of the relative lack of ethnic and gender diversity among Reagan appointees. Carter, placing heavy emphasis on appointing minorities and women, ended up naming 38 blacks, 16 Latinos and 40 women to federal judicial posts. Reagan, saying that he would emphasize merit over diversity, has appointed 2 blacks, 8 Latinos and 17 women--including O'Connor--to the federal bench during his first four years in office.
"The Reagan record on appointment of blacks is the worst since the (Dwight D.) Eisenhower Administration," said Sheldon Goldman, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts.
"This Administration says it values equal opportunity, but there's no way to accomplish that without some kind of affirmative action . . . . I'd like to see the Reagan Administration take more seriously the importance of placing on the federal bench minorities who have been historically discriminated against," Goldman said.
The Administration counters that it does seek minorities and women for the bench but that philosophical considerations must come first. "We are interested in making the bench as diverse as possible, and we encourage women and minority candidates," said James M. Spears, an acting assistant attorney general who heads the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy.
"But we're not going to sacrifice those things we feel most important simply to adjust the numbers," Spears said. Advocates of the judicial conservatism favored by the Administration say that what matters is \o7 how\f7 a judge reaches a decision--not necessarily what he decides. They deplore "judicial activism"--the tendency to shape the law to reach the result a judge desires.