For the first time since Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) established a blue-ribbon merit selection committee to help him pick federal judges, he has been accused of passing over the panel's first choice.
Sources have told The Times that the final unanimous choice of Wilson's eight-member judicial screening committee for a July opening on the federal bench in Los Angeles was U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner.
Instead of picking Bonner, however, Wilson recommended the appointment of San Fernando Superior Court Judge Ronald Sing Wai Lew, the first Chinese-American ever proposed for the federal bench in Los Angeles.
While Lew was one of a dozen candidates rated "exceptionally well qualified" by Wilson's merit committee, one committee source said Bonner was the clear favorite.
"Bonner was the unanimous top pick of the committee and Lew wasn't even close," the source said. "It's the first time Wilson has ignored the committee when the recommendation was expressed so clearly."
Aides to Wilson, who established his screening system almost four years ago, declined to comment directly on the dispute, but emphasized that the merit committee is merely an advisory group.
"The senator felt Judge Lew was the best candidate for the job," said Wilson spokesman Otto Bos. "The committee is an advisory group, but it's the senator who makes the choices. He always has, and his selections have been widely praised for their outstanding backgrounds."
Privately, some sources close to the selection process speculated that Wilson, who had been criticized by liberals in the past for making only one minority appointment out of 10 previous selections to the federal bench in Los Angeles, was at least partly influenced by Lew's ethnic background.
Viewpoint on Bonner
One source also suggested that the decision reflected a feeling that Bonner, appointed U.S. attorney in Los Angeles in 1984, had done an "outstanding" job in his first two years and should be kept in his present position.
Bonner himself was not the original top choice for the opening, according to others. The merit committee initially favored former Assistant Atty. Gen. Stephen S. Trott, a former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, one committee member said.
Trott, however, withdrew from consideration for the judgeship to become associate attorney general, the third-highest position in the Justice Department. He is now regarded as a leading candidate to be the next director of the FBI.
While the July opening was the last judgeship on the court, Bonner has been seen as a top prospect for any new judgeship that might be created by the unscheduled retirement of one of the 21 active federal trial judges.
U.S. District Judge Pamela Ann Rymer is viewed as a possible nominee to the California Supreme Court, and one scenario popular among Republican federal judges in Los Angeles is that Bonner might be named to Rymer's seat if she leaves the district court.
Delay in Evaluation
Neither Bonner nor Lew had any comment on the dispute over Wilson's recommendation of Lew to President Reagan. According to Wilson sources, the actual nomination has been stalled because of a delay by the American Bar Assn. in preparing an evaluation of Lew for the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Wilson sources said Reagan is expected to formally make the nomination in early January, when Congress reconvenes. The sources expressed confidence that the appointment will be speedily approved.
While other California senators have established merit screening committees to help them select judicial appointees, Wilson's two-tier committee system has been viewed as the most elaborate and secretive. Besides the merit committee, there is a second political committee that scrutinizes the personal backgrounds of candidates.
The members of the merit committee, the group that makes the initial judgments, include U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall, U.S. District Judge William D. Keller, California Supreme Court Justice Malcolm Lucas and Superior Court Judge Ronald M. George of Los Angeles.
Also on the committee are attorneys Sheldon Sloane, John Argue, Bruce Hochman and Thomas R. Malcolm.