SUN VALLEY, Ida. — Defending the Reagan Administration's selection of federal judges, U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III denied Thursday that the Justice Department is interested in the "personal political beliefs" of judicial candidates.
"When I get the names, I don't know if a person is a Democrat or a Republican," Meese told the conference of federal judges here. "We're not interested in personal political beliefs."
Meese, addressing the annual judicial conference of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, said the Justice Department bases its decisions partly on "consciousness-raising" interviews with all top candidates for judgeships.
But he denied that the interviews have ever focused on such questions as a potential judge's view of abortion, the death penalty or school prayer.
"Contrary to reports in the press, these interviews are not in any way a litmus test," Meese said. "One thing about the interviews is they are consciousness-raising. A philosophy of law and judging is essential."
Meese's appearance at the 9th Circuit meeting followed strong criticism of the 9th Circuit in recent years by Justice Department officials who have viewed the court as too liberal.
The addition of seven conservative Republican judges to the 28-judge court by the Reagan Administration, however, has evened the political makeup of the nation's largest federal appellate court and shifted its philosophical base.
While some 9th Circuit judges took a skeptical view of Meese's denials of any political considerations in judicial selection, he was politely applauded for explaining the process. Several judges said they believe that Meese "improved his standing" with the court by appearing at the conference.
"We feel the present system is a true merit system," Meese said. "We are working very hard for one thing--the best people."
Meese, joining the judges in protesting forced cuts in judicial spending mandated by the Gramm-Rudman Act, said the budget cuts have created "great problems" throughout the Justice Department.
While noting "the need to reduce the budget," Meese focused on the need to build new prisons to house an expanding population of federal prisoners throughout the United States.
The Reagan Administration, he said, is "accelerating" the construction of new prisons despite congressional spending cuts because of the "unprecedented" increase in federal prisoners. Meese said there are now 41,200 inmates in the U.S. federal prison system--2,000 prisoners more than Justice Department projections for the end of 1987.
"We are out of space," he said. "We are rapidly building new prisons at a pace unprecedented in the history of our country."
This year's five-day 9th Circuit conference is on the subject of the public's view of how the court, which covers California and eight other Western states, is functioning. Attending are 300 bankruptcy, trial and appeals court judges, as well as magistrates and lawyers.
Chief 9th Circuit Judge James R. Browning of San Francisco said the conference marked the first time that the court had invited journalists and leaders of public-interest groups to comment on its activities.
"I think it reflects our receptiveness to constructive criticism from others," Browning said. "It's our view the court is doing a good job, but we can always do better."
Browning also announced a three-year pilot project in which the court will study a decentralized budget as a way of countering the budget cuts forced by Congress. Another innovation he announced is a project in which District Court judges and Circuit Court judges will exchange criticisms with each other during the next few years.
"We can all benefit from finding out what we really think of each other's work," Browning said.