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2 on Panel Named to Bench by GOP Presidents : Judiciary: The third is an appointee of Lyndon Johnson. They were handpicked for the selection of independent counsels by Rehnquist.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The three appeals court judges on the special panel that appointed a new independent counsel in the politically charged Whitewater investigation Friday include two who were named to the federal bench by Republican presidents.

One, Judge David B. Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, is a native North Carolinian and avid supporter of conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

The other two, Judge Joseph Sneed of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and Judge John Butzner of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, are in their 70s and, with senior status, have only partial workloads. Sneed was named to the appeals court by President Richard Nixon and Butzner by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Judges selected for two-year terms on the Division for the Purpose of Appointing Independent Counsels, an arm of the U.S. Court of Appeals, are handpicked by Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist from among the nation’s federal judges.

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One member of the panel must be from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where newly selected independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr sat before President George Bush chose him to be solicitor general in 1989.

The law authorizing the panel expired at the end of 1992. The day before the law ran out, the panel--consisting of the same three members who now sit there--appointed special prosecutor Joseph diGenova to probe possible Bush Administration involvement in distribution of information from President Clinton’s passport files.

With no independent prosecutor law in place, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno appointed Robert B. Fiske Jr. last January as special counsel to head up the Whitewater investigation. Congress reauthorized the independent counsel law earlier this year, and the special panel’s decision Friday to replace Fiske with Starr was its first since then.

The only fully active judge among the three who now sit on the panel is Sentelle, 51, who was appointed to the D.C. appeals court by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 to replace Antonin Scalia, who was chosen to serve on the Supreme Court.

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On the appeals court, one of Sentelle’s most noteworthy decisions came in 1991 when he and other Republican appointees voted to reverse the convictions of Iran-Contra figures Oliver L. North, John M. Poindexter and Lyn Nofziger.

A commentator for American Lawyer magazine said that Sentelle and another panelist “made such strange law in one portion of their Nov. 15 decision in the Poindexter case that a cynic might suspect them of naked political animus.”

Sneed, 74, has served on the 9th circuit appeals court since 1973. During Starr’s days as a law student at Duke University in the early 1970s, Sneed was dean of the law school. Butzner, 76, has served on the 4th circuit appeals court since 1967.

* TEXT OF RULING: A20

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