Judge, not?

For the third time in five years, an African-American attorney has been nominated to the federal bench in the North Texas District. And for the third time, that nomination has stalled--again a victim, insiders say, of partisan politics.

Cheryl Wattley, a former federal prosecutor now in private legal practice in Dallas, was recommended for the post last April by the U.S. Congressional delegation from North Texas. She was selected for the judgeship--a lifetime appointment--after Eric Moye, a former State District Judge recommended to the federal bench by former senator Bob Krueger, waited in vain for 21 months to be confirmed. An African-American on the North Texas federal bench would be a historic first.

If Wattley's nomination is not confirmed in the next few weeks, sources say, the position--with its growing backlog of cases--will likely go unfilled until after the 1996 presidential election.

Wattley says that she has heard she passed the first two hurdles--approval by the American Bar Association and clearance by the FBI. But it is the next step that may prove the stumbling block--approval by the state's two U.S. senators, Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, both of whom are Republicans.

Although the president appoints federal judges, the White House won't send Wattley's name on for Senate confirmation unless the Texas Republican senators support her, according to Carlton Carl, spokesman for Congressman John Bryant.

Senators Gramm and Hutchison did not return phone calls from the Observer. But several sources say the senators object to Wattley's association with firebrand Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price.

Dallas Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, however, is more optimistic. "The last time I talked with the White House--and I talk to them frequently--everything was ready except they hadn't received a report from Hutchison and Gramm," she says. "I have visited with both of them personally and both said they had no problem with [Wattley]."

In any case, Wattley is racing the clock. "If it doesn't happen by the 31st of this month, it won't happen," says a prominent African-American attorney in Dallas. "Next month we will be within a year of a doggone presidential election and the Republicans will not allow any Democratic nominations to be confirmed because the Republicans think they will take over the White House."

Sitting in her decidedly non-legal-looking law office in Oak Lawn, decorated with colorful prints of black musicians and a Norman Rockwell print of a black schoolgirl being escorted by federal marshals, Wattley recalls with vivid detail the day she heard her name was officially forwarded to the White House for a federal judgeship.

"It was April 4 and I got a letter from Congressman Gonzalez's office," she says. "I told my secretary to hold my calls." As Wattley read the letter, an emergency call came through from the state police in Connecticut. They had found her 84-year-old father dead from a heart attack in his home.

Wattley never got the chance to tell her father about the nomination. She had told him when she was in contention for the position several years earlier--when Moye was selected--and didn't want to disappoint him again.

"I never told him I had met with the Congressional delegation. I wanted it to be a surprise," she says.

For the single mother of four children and Smith College graduate, the last five months have been an emotional rollercoaster as well. After burying her father and getting his affairs in order, she returned to Dallas to prepare documents for the Justice Department.

The process was further delayed when the federal building in Oklahoma was bombed, which preoccupied the Justice Department and the FBI for months. Wattley finally had her interview at the Justice Department on June 19--Juneteenth, the day blacks celebrate the freeing of Texas slaves.

"I find that highly symbolic," she says, adding, "I can find symbolism in anything."

If Wattley does not get confirmed, she says it won't be because she is not qualified. "Look at my background. I have more federal legal experience than any judge who is on the bench now."

After graduating from Boston Law School, Wattley worked as an assistant U.S. attorney for seven years--two years in Connecticut and five in Dallas. Following her stint as a federal prosecutor, she worked with high-profile criminal defense attorney Billy Ravkind, and went on to defend Danny Faulkner in the seven-month-long I-30 condominium scandal trial, which ended in a hung jury.

Along the way, Wattley had three children, who range from a first-grader to a high school senior--all of whom attend Dallas public schools. She and her ex-husband also adopted a boy from the Wednesday's Child program, that attempts to place neglected or abused children, who is 15 and doing well.

"My friends call my kids 2 Live Crew," says Wattley.
In her office, next to pictures of her children is a plaque that reads: "VOP, very overworked person." Besides her busy private practice, Wattley served as director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at Southern Methodist University, was appointed by Gov. Ann Richards to the Board of Regents at Texas Woman's University, was a member of Dallas Together, a group organized to help ease racial conflict in the city, and played an integral role in recent citywide redistricting efforts.

When Wattley met with the North Texas Congressional delegation, several members mentioned that her connection to John Wiley Price might hurt her chances of becoming a federal judge.

To combat those concerns, she and her backers worked hard to seek support from a wide variety of Dallas and Texas leaders, from former Gov. Richards and the Rev. Zan Holmes to Belo CEO Robert Decherd and John Adams, chairman of the board of Texas Commerce Bank.

"From John Wiley Price to Robert Decherd, from the person who picketed Belo to the person who runs Belo," says Wattley, emphasizing the breadth of her support, contained in a two-inch-high notebook of letters sent to President Clinton.

But the waiting has been tough for Wattley, for her clients, and for her practice, which is in limbo until she hears about the appointment. "It's tough to know whether you should take on new clients," she says. "Your present clients want to know if you'll be there for them six months down the road."

Wattley says she will be deeply disappointed, but not devastated, if the judgeship ultimately does not come through. "It's a very heady proposition to be considered, to be that close to something that is every lawyer's ultimate goal. But I have not directed my career toward a judgeship, but toward the legal representation of those who needed representation. It will not be a measure of my career for me. Besides, I have four children who keep me grounded in what's important."

But the process has offered its own edification for Wattley. "For something that's supposedly non-political, that's supposed to be above the fray of politics and favoritism, this is the most political of processes," she says.

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Ann Zimmerman