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Feinstein Backs L.A. Judge for Key U.S. Attorney Post : Justice: President Clinton is expected to OK the choice for top prosecutor in the nation’s most-populous district.

TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has recommended to President Clinton that he nominate Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Nora M. Manella for the powerful position of U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, The Times has learned.

If Clinton accepts the California Democrat’s recommendation, which is regarded as highly likely, Manella, 42, would become the top federal law enforcement official in seven Southern California counties from Riverside to San Luis Obispo.

To garner the coveted nomination, Manella, a former federal prosecutor, topped a dozen other candidates, including John K. Van de Kamp, who previously served as U.S. attorney and as California’s attorney general.

A wide array of lawyers and legal observers praised the choice.

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“She’s smart, dedicated and ethical. She’ll do a great job,” predicted Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson, who served with Manella in the U.S. attorney’s office in the mid-1980s.

Manella declined comment Wednesday, saying: “My understanding is the process is not completed.”

But legal and political sources said she was undergoing a standard FBI background check, subsequent to Feinstein making her recommendation to the President. Under a power-sharing agreement reached earlier this year with the state’s other senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer, Feinstein recommends the U.S. attorneys in Los Angeles and Sacramento and Boxer recommends the ones in San Francisco and San Diego. As a general rule, Presidents defer to the wishes of U.S. senators in the selection of U.S. attorneys.

Kam Kuwata, Feinstein’s chief aide on judicial appointments, would say only that “we’ve submitted a name to the Administration and they’ve asked if they can make the announcement at the appropriate time.”

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Manella would face a large task in her new position. The Central District office handles a wide range of matters ranging from narcotics trafficking to elaborate white-collar crime. The district--which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties--is the most populous in the United States, with nearly 16 million people.

Although the size of the U.S. attorney’s office here has risen sharply in the past decade, from 88 to 200 attorneys, it still has one of the smallest staffs per capita in the nation--one attorney per 91,000 residents, compared to one per 25,000 residents in the New York office.

Moreover, like U.S. attorney offices around the country, the Los Angeles office is facing a staffing reduction because of budgetary constraints.

Manella, a Studio City native, attended Hollywood High School, graduated with honors from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and from USC Law School, then garnered a prestigious clerkship with federal appellate Judge John Minor Wisdom in New Orleans.

She then served as legal counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, spent four years in O’Melveny and Myers’ Washington office, and in 1982 became an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.

She spent eight years as a federal prosecutor, rising to become head of the office’s appeals unit.

Perhaps Manella’s most celebrated case was the 1987 conviction of anti-war activist Susan (Katya) Komisaruk, who admitted destroying a million-dollar computer at Vandenberg Air Force base that she believed was a key part of the U.S. military’s NAVSTAR global positioning system for nuclear missiles.

On Wednesday, Komisaruk’s lead lawyer, Leonard Weinglass, recalled Manella as fair, well prepared and a “very strong advocate. You would have thought in a case like Katya’s, where almost all the facts were agreed on, you would think a prosecutor would tend to just take it very lightly, but she didn’t.”

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U.S. District Judge Harry L. Hupp, who presided over two bank robbery cases Manella successfully prosecuted in the mid-1980s, called her a “woman with great ability.”

“I think the world of her,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven D. Clymer, one of the lead prosecutors in the recently completed Rodney G. King civil rights trial. “She has a lot of common sense. When she was the chief of appeals in the U.S. attorney’s office, she not only understood the law, she understood the way judges think and what arguments would fly.”

One former federal prosecutor said one of Manella’s principal challenges would be carving out independence from Washington.

The attorney, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in recent years the Justice Department has made increasing attempts to curb the autonomy of U.S. attorney’s offices, sometimes with detrimental effects. He said that Washington was playing a greater role in determining what cases are filed and in prosecutors’ ability to negotiate defendants’ pleas.

“The U.S. attorneys have a sense of the pulse where they are; Washington doesn’t,” the lawyer said.

Law professor Levenson predicted that Manella would be well up to the task. “She is someone with tremendous conviction,” she said.

Levenson also said she expected that Manella would “make some changes in the office that people are looking forward to. . . . She will be confident in elevating women and people of color to positions where they are visible and handling the most important cases.”

Although she is a Democrat, Manella was appointed to a Los Angeles Municipal Court judgeship by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian in 1990 and elevated to the Superior Court in 1992, where she now handles felony criminal trials. She has generally been given high marks by attorneys who appeared before her on the bench, with lawyers emphasizing that she was fair, courteous and well prepared.

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In addition to her legal skills, Manella is known for being a fine singer and songwriter. “No one is better at adapting Cole Porter tunes to songs about lawyers,” said Los Angeles lawyer Richard B. Kendall, also a former federal prosecutor.

Manella was not among the original group of people who applied for the U.S. attorney’s job but threw her hat into the ring after a member of Feinstein’s screening committee suggested that she apply. The candidates were interviewed by the committee of eight Southern California attorneys, judges and political activists at the home of former Los Angeles City Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman. Feinstein then interviewed three finalists before making her decision, sources said.

There is no firm timeline on when Manella’s confirmation process might be completed, but sources said they hoped she would be able to take over the U.S. attorney’s office by the end of the year.


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