For the second time in a row, a United States president has turned to the federal bench for a new director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. US District Judge William S. Sessions of Houston was nominated Friday by Ronald Reagan to succeed William H. Webster, who recently moved from the FBI to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Judge Sessions, chief judge of the US District Court for the western district of Texas, is known as a tough, law-and-order jurist. His nomination ended a five-month search during which several prospective nominees turned down the job.
Mr. Webster, who was a federal appeals court judge when President Carter named him FBI director in 1978, took over the CIA earlier this year after the death of director Willam J. Casey. In almost 10 years as head of the bureau, Webster did much to restore an FBI which had seen its reputation blemished by the Watergate scandal and other problems.
But Webster leaves his successor with a bit of a cleanup task at the FBI. There is suspicion that the agency protected the White House in the Iran-contra affair. Also, the FBI has been accused of harassing opponents in the US of the Reagan administration's Central American policies.
``I'm very pleased,'' with the Sessions nomination, Webster said in a telephone interview. ``I have the highest personal and professional regard for Judge Sessions. The particular case which demonstrated the great capacity of the judge, was the long and intricate trial stemming from the assassination of John Wood.''
When US District Judge John H. Wood of Texas was murdered in 1982, Sessions presided over two ensuing trials. He imposed two consecutive life sentences on the convicted killer and 5-to-30 year terms for three conspirators.
Commenting on his reputation for toughness, Sessions said at a Washington news conference Friday: ``I love the accusation. I don't wear a gunbelt and I don't have any cowboy boots to my name. If I'm a west Texas tough guy, it's because we dealt with difficult problems out there.''
Announcing his nominee for the 10-year appointment, President Reagan said Sessions ``is well-recognized as a man of great personal integrity and honor, dedicated to the even-handed administration of justice.''
The nomination ended a 4-month search that became a political embarrassment for the Reagan administration when several candidates declined the $82,500-a-year job. As a district judge, Sessions receives $89,500.
Sessions said he looks forward ``to trying to maintain the high standards that Judge Webster provided.'' Sessions is a former federal prosecuter and served as chief of the government operations section in the criminal division of the Justice Department.
US Attorney General Edwin Meese II said at the news conference that Sessions ``has a total commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law and his integrity is unquestioned.... His character and career performance strongly indicate that he will approach his work in the non-partisan manner that is demanded by this very sensitive position.''
Only three times in 60 years has the FBI wanted for a director. The first, J. Edgar Hoover, was chief for 48 years. In his later years he stained the bureau's reputation by authorizing espionage against US citizens.
When Hoover died in 1972, President Nixon named Assistant Attorney General L. Patrick Gray as acting director. Mr. Gray's tenure ended when he acknowledged burning Watergate evidence. Mr. Nixon then named Kansas City Police Chief Clarence M. Kelly. In five years Mr. Kelly managed to restore some of the agency's former luster. However, more revelations of abuse under Hoover tainted the organization once again. He resigned in 1977, and President Carter ordered Attorney General Griffin B. Bell to find a replacement. A year later he found Webster.
The Sessions nomination now goes to the US Senate for confirmation. Remarking that the FBI post ``has been vacant too long,'' Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware, said he will move this week to set up a committee hearing schedule for the confirmation.