WASHINGTON — President Reagan, saying he is "a bit wiser" after two failed attempts to put a hard-line conservative on the Supreme Court, today picked federal appeals Judge Anthony M. Kennedy for the bench and dropped his partisan attacks against the Democratic-run Senate.
Reagan said Kennedy, 51, has earned a reputation as "a courageous, tough but fair jurist" in his 12 years on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
"He's popular with colleagues of all political persuasions," Reagan said. "And I know that he seems to be popular with many senators of varying political persuasions as well."
Kennedy is considered to be a moderate conservative, less ideologically rigid than Reagan's two earlier nominees, Robert H. Bork, who was defeated by the Senate, and Douglas H. Ginsburg, who quit after revealing he had smoked marijuana.
Asked if he had ever smoked marijuana, Kennedy replied: "The answer was--no, firmly, no."
Mindful of the problems he has had for more than four months in trying to fill the court opening, Reagan said he would not actually submit Kennedy's nomination until completion of a full-field FBI background check, which could take weeks.
Abandoning any pretense of confrontation with the Senate over filling the vacancy, the President said: "The experience of the last several months has made all of us a bit wiser."
But Reagan did allow himself a brief show of partisanship. Asked if he had caved in to liberals, he replied, "When the day comes that I cave in to the liberals, I will be long gone from here."
On Capitol Hill, the reaction echoed Reagan's attempt to overcome the bitterness generated by the Bork and Ginsburg nominations.
"I can't see any good reason for anyone opposing this, from Jesse Helms to Teddy Kennedy," said Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.). Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) led the fight against Bork, while Helms, North Carolina Republican, once had threatened to filibuster against Judge Kennedy as not sufficiently conservative.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee that will handle the nomination, said "Kennedy seems on the surface like a mainstream conservative justice whom I can support. . . ."
Kennedy, passed over when Reagan picked Ginsburg on Oct. 29, was flown to Washington on Saturday when Ginsburg withdrew.
He underwent three hours of "no-holds-barred" questioning by Reagan's top lieutenants Sunday about his personal life and integrity, presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said. That was followed by 10 hours of interviews by FBI agents Monday and Tuesday.
Among other things, FBI agents looked into Kennedy's one-time position as a lobbyist for a liquor distiller and opticians. White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. reported to Reagan this morning that no problems had cropped up in Kennedy's past, and the announcement was hurriedly arranged.
A graduate of Harvard Law School and resident of Sacramento, Kennedy was named to the appeals court by President Gerald R. Ford in 1975.
Kennedy has written opinions upholding capital punishment, the legality of paying women less than men in comparable jobs and the Navy's policy of discharging sailors who engage in homosexual conduct.
In his most highly publicized decision, later upheld by the Supreme Court, he struck down the "legislative veto" by which Congress limited power in the executive branch.
Fitzwater said the White House would like the Senate Judiciary Committee to start hearings before Congress takes its Christmas recess and might suggest that they begin on Dec. 7, the date originally scheduled for hearings on the Ginsburg nomination.
Biden said he doubts hearings can begin before January.