Columbia attorney to be tapped for 4th Circuit seat, sources say

COLUBMIA -- A Columbia attorney with Washington connections is President Bush's nominee for the seat of now-retired 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William "Billy" Wilkins of Greenville, several sources said Monday.

Although Bush has made no formal announcement, he plans to nominate Steve A. Matthews, managing director of Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, Columbia's fourth-largest law firm, for Wilkins' seat, several sources intimately familiar with the selection process told The State.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently interviewed at least two people who have worked with Matthews, a standard procedure before a nomination is announced, one source said.

The White House chose Matthews, 51, over S.C. Court of Appeals Judge John Kittredge of Greenville, the top choice of U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint, sources said.

But Matthews was the preference of Fred Fielding, Bush's chief counsel, sources said. Matthews worked with Fielding, who was President Reagan's chief counsel from 1981 to 1986, while Matthews was a Justice Department lawyer.

While at Justice, Matthews advised Reagan and Attorney General Edwin Meese on federal judgeships, according to a biography of Matthews on the Haynsworth law firm's Web site.

Matthews also served as Meese's special counsel on the Iran-Contra investigation into Reagan administration officials' secretly providing money to Nicaraguan rebels by selling arms to Iran.

Efforts Monday to reach Matthews were unsuccessful.

Kittredge said Monday the White House recently informed him it was "going in a different direction" with the nomination.

"I thanked them for their consideration, and I thank Judge Wilkins for his incredible service," Kittredge said, declining further comment.

White House spokesman Blair Jones also declined comment Monday. Graham and DeMint declined comment through spokesmen.

By law, the president nominates candidates to federal district and appellate courts, and the U.S. Senate confirms them. Their appointments are for life.

Traditionally, the president relies on recommendations from home-state senators for district court judgeships. When it comes to appeals court judges, however, the White House has tended to go its own way.

The 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, Va., covers South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. The court, which hears appeals from federal district courts, is considered the most conservative circuit in the country and has ruled on several important terrorism cases in recent years.

Matthews has no experience as a judge, while Kittredge has served 16 years as a family, circuit and appellate judge. Tobias said it's not unusual for federal appellate judges to have no prior experience on the bench.