The day they threw the rubber stamp away

The Senate Judiciary Committee's rejection of a presidential appointee to the federal bench -- the first such disapproval in 42 years of anyone picked for a district judgeship -- provides encouraging new evidence of continued improvements in the way judges are selected and confirmed. The committee's vote to turn down President Carter's nomination of North Carolina attorney Charles Winberry Jr. came as a result of independent evidence uncovered by the Judiciary Committee's staff. The committee's investigation turned up enough questions about the ethics and credibility of the nominee in past dealings to convince the American Bar Association to reverse its previous approval of the North Carolinian.

Such vigorous congressional probing of judicial nominations was unheard of until recently. Prior to the Carter administration's issuance of guidelines stressing merit selection and the Senate Judiciary Committee's efforts, under Senator Kennedy's chairmanship, to exert greater oversight, the selection of federal judges was largely a matter of political patronage, whereby senators suggested names to the White House which in turn gave them to the Judiciary Committee for rubber stamping.

Patronage continues to dictate too many appointments, as the case of Mr. Winberry underscores. Senator Robert Morgan of North Carolina recommended Mr. Winberry for the bench. Mr. Winberry had served as Senator Morgan's campaign manager in 1974 and also has political ties to former North Carolina Gov. James Hunt. While not all patronage appointments are necessarily bad, accusations that Mr. Winberry improperly sought to influence a judge for a client in a cigarette-smugling case elicited from Mr. Winberry a concession that he had not acted within the "spirit" of the legal profession's code of ethics.

The ABA's initial superficial investigation and approval of Mr. Winberry failed to focus on the allegations against him. And the ABA must be faulted for that. But the bar association's subsequent willingness to reverse its previous decision and disquality the nominee and the Judiciary Committee's courageous break with tradition in rejecting him are to be applauded. Such incidents show that merit selection can be made to work when the legal profession, Congress, and the White House work together to minimize the impact of politics on the courts.

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