Utah attorney Harold G. Christensen faced a generally friendly Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday morning at a hearing on his nomination to take the No. 2 job at the Justice Department.
But he startled committee chairman, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., when he said he found morale at the Justice Department good and even saw "a sense of enthusiasm" among government attorneys.Kennedy, who presided over an earlier hearing Wednesday, when two former high department officials said they resigned because they felt Attorney General Edwin Meese III had acted unethically or even criminally, told Christensen he found his attitude "somewhat incredible."
"I think you're going down there with blinders on," Kennedy said.
Christensen has been the acting deputy attorney general since early June. His hearing this week is on his nomination to take the post for the remainder of the Reagan administration.
Christensen has been a Salt Lake attorney since 1951, and was a member of the firm Snow, Christensen and Martineau, until his departure last month to take the Justice Department post. Christensen also served as president of the Utah State Bar Association from 1975 to '76.
Kennedy questioned the ethics of Christensen continuing to represent clients before the late federal Judge Willis Ritter in 1976 after a senior part ner in Christensen's law firm handled a challenge of Ritter's authority over court papers without pay. Kennedy said that the canons of legal ethics bar any judge from receiving any gift from an attorney (or law firm).
Ritter was subsequently removed from a case by the Court of Appeals on other grounds, however, and the court determined there was no indication that Christensen acted unfairly or unethically.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, who introduced Christensen at the session, called Kennedy's complaint "trivial."
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, questioned Christensen on a 1976 challenge brought against the Utah State Bar examination by several unsuccessful entrants who argued they had been discriminated against because they were women and minorities.
Christensen said the chief question over the exam was its scoring, which was done without knowledge of the applicant's identity. He said he subsequently participated in a review of the exam results as head of the bar association.
The bar association later approved several applicants who originally failed the exam and the Utah Supreme Court added others to the passing list.
Christensen said he was not aware that discrimination had been alleged.
Hatch told the committee that the "president could not have chosen a more qualified individual" for the deputy attorney general's job.
Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, said in a statement he was appearing with Utah Republicans "to show our bipartisan support for Mr. Christensen." He called Christensen "a man of true integrity . . . (whose) sense of fairness and judicial temperament is lauded throughout the Utah legal community."
A committee vote on Christensen's confirmation is still pending.