Thomas Alvin Farr – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina

In December 2006, Thomas Alvin Farr, a well-connected Republican attorney from Raleigh, was nominated for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.  For the next two years, Farr waited for a hearing and a vote, neither of which came in the Democratic-controlled Senate.  Then, with the election of President Obama, Farr’s hopes of a federal judgeship died.  On July 13, 2017, however, President Trump revived Farr’s nomination, submitting him once again to the seat he had originally been nominated for, a seat studiously kept open by North Carolina’s Republican Senators.

Background

Thomas Alvin Farr was born in Cincinnati, OH on October 24, 1954.[1]  Farr attended Hillsdale College, a Christian liberal arts school in Michigan, graduating summa cum laude in 1976.  Farr proceeded to Emory University, graduating with a J.D. in 1979.

After graduating, Farr joined the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation as a staff attorney.  In 1981, upon the election of Republican senator John P. East,[2] Farr moved to Washington D.C. to serve as Counsel for the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.  Farr left D.C. in 1982 to serve as a law clerk to Judge Frank Bullock of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

In 1983, Farr joined the Raleigh law firm Maupin, Taylor, Ellis & Adams, P.A., working on civil litigation, with a focus on labor law.  During this period, Farr also served as a member of the North Carolina Elections Board.

In 2003, Farr and three other partners left Maupin for Haynsworth, Baldwin, Johnson & Greaves, a Greenville, SC based labor and employment firm.[3]  In 2006, Farr joined the Raleigh office of Ogletree Deakins, where he currently works as a partner.

In December 2006, President George W. Bush nominated Farr for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.  Farr’s nomination came a month after Democrats took control of the U.S. Senate.  Incoming Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) declined to process Farr’s nomination, despite moving and confirming three other North Carolina nominees.  Farr’s nomination was ultimately returned to the President unconfirmed.

History of the Seat

Farr has been nominated for the longest pending federal judicial vacancy.  This seat opened on December 31, 2005, when Judge Malcolm J. Howard moved to senior status.  After Farr’s unsuccessful nomination expired in 2008, President Barack Obama and newly elected Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) did not renominate Farr.  Instead, in July 2009, Hagan submitted a list of three new candidates, Superior Court Judges Allen Cobb and Quentin Sumner, and federal prosecutor Jennifer May-Parker, to the Administration.[4]  Republican Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) submitted his own letter endorsing Cobb and May-Parker.[5]  However, despite the joint endorsements, Obama did not nominate a judge during his first term.

On June 20, 2013, Obama finally nominated May-Parker to fill the vacancy.[6]  However, Burr reversed his prior support for May-Parker, blocking her nomination by refusing to return a blue slip.[7]  Without Burr’s support, May-Parker did not receive a hearing, and her nomination died at the end of the 113th Congress.

On April 28, 2016, President Obama nominated Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a former justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court, to fill the vacancy.[8]  Timmons-Goodson’s nomination drew immediate opposition from Burr, who refused to support her.[9]  As a result, she was never confirmed.

On July 13, 2017, President Trump renominated Farr for the vacancy,[10] this time with the support of Burr and Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC).[11]

Legal Experience

Having been a lawyer since 1979, Farr has more experience litigating than any other nominee put forward by the Trump Administration.  The vast majority of his experience has been in the fields of labor and election law.

Labor Law

Farr has spent virtually his entire legal career in labor law, generally opposed to the positions of unions and unionized workers.  He started his legal career at the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, litigating against unions and union-friendly regulation.  Furthermore, as Counsel for Sen. East, Farr worked on labor policy in the U.S. Senate.

In private practice, Farr fought claims by truck drivers seeking the rights of union membership,[12] and industrial workers seeking to take necessary measurements to file a grievance.[13]  Farr also successfully intervened in a suit blocking NLRB enforcement of its bargaining order against a pork product plant in North Carolina.[14]  He also filed suit to challenge an arbitration decision in favor of a unionized employee.[15]

Farr also filed a Supreme Court amicus brief on behalf of Helms urging affirmance of a decision holding that unions could not spend money on activities unrelated to collective bargaining.[16]

Election Law

In addition to his expertise in labor law, Farr is also known for his extensive litigation experience representing the Republican party, Republican elected officials, and conservative interests in election law litigation.[17]

Early in his career, Farr represented Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and the North Carolina Republican Party in a suit challenging the constitutionality of North Carolina election laws.  The suit arose when Republican Congressman Bill Hendon lost a close election to Democrat James Clarke, and filed suit to challenge the election results, and the North Carolina straight-ticket statute.  After years of litigation, Judge David Sentelle (now on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit) found that the statute, which voided cross-over votes cast in opposition to a straight-ticket ballot, was unconstitutional, accepting Farr’s position.[18]

Following the 1990 census, Farr represented the Republican Party of North Carolina in its unsuccessful challenge against the state’s congressional map, alleging partisan gerrymandering.[19]  In 1995, Farr argued the case of Shaw v. Hunt before the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court ended up siding with Farr on a 5-4 vote, striking down the congressional map as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.[20]

In 2001, Farr and future U.S. District Judge James Dever once again challenged the maps drawn by North Carolina’s Democratic legislature, alleging that they were a partisan gerrymander.[21]

In contrast to his litigation against partisan gerrymandering by Democrats, Farr has defended gerrymandering by Republicans.  For example, Farr was a part of the legal team defending the North Carolina legislature’s gerrymandering of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.[22]

Farr also defended the congressional map and state legislative maps drawn by the Republican legislature against charges that they were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.[23]  He also defended “election reform” measures enacted by the legislature that, critics argued, would disenfranchise minority voters.[24]

Controversially, Farr’s firm was hired at taxpayer expense to defend North Carolina’s restrictive voter id law against suit by the Department of Justice, who argued that the law disenfranchised minority voters.[25]  In court, Farr argued that voter id was a “minor inconvenience” for voters.[26]  Ultimately, the appeals were dismissed by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, and Farr was dismissed from the case.[27]

Other Representations

In addition to the cases mentioned above, Farr has defended business interests against civil rights and other actions in court.[28]  Early in his career, Farr successfully defended a railroad accused of promoting white candidates over an experienced black conductor.[29]  Farr also successfully defended American Safety Products, Inc. against breach of contract and RICO claims,[30] as well as defending Dow Corning Corp. against wrongful termination claims.[31]

Political Activity

As may be evident from his frequent appointments by the Republican legislature, Farr is well connected in the North Carolina Republican Party and has been a generous donor to Republicans.  Through his career, Farr has donated to Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-NC), President George W. Bush, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH), Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), Rep. George Holding (R-NC), Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC), Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, among others.[32]  Farr has also been a strong supporter of President Trump, donating almost $2500 to Trump’s campaign, and an additional $1100 to the Make America Great Again PAC.[33]  While most of his donations are to Republicans, Farr did donate $1000 to Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC) in 2009.

Overall Assessment

Both Farr’s supporters and detractors will likely turn to one-word arguments for their position.  For Farr’s supporters, the word is “qualified.”  For his opponents, it’s “partisan.”

As noted, Farr has more experience practicing law than any other Trump nominee.  With almost forty years of legal experience, including work in government, nonprofits, and private practice, Farr is certainly well qualified for a federal judgeship.

However, Farr also has a deeply partisan history.  His switch from attacking partisan gerrymanders drawn by Democrats to defending partisan gerrymanders drawn by Republicans allows detractors to paint him as a partisan ideologue.  Furthermore, his dismissal of the burdens of voter id as a “minor inconvenience” is sure to draw opposition from civil rights groups.

As a bottom line, Democrats, civil rights plaintiffs, and labor unions will argue that, given Farr’s partisan past, he cannot be fair to them in court.  Unlike his first nomination, however, this time, Farr will get a hearing to defend himself and try and put those doubts to rest.


[2] East later gained notoreity as one of the principal opponents of a federal holiday honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Frances Romero, A Brief History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Time, Jan. 18, 2010, http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1872501,00.html.

[3] Kim Nilsen, Eillis [sic] Leaves Maupin Taylor & Ellis, Triangle Business Jrnl., Mar. 24, 2003, https://www.bizjournals.com/triangle/stories/2003/03/24/daily11.html.

[4] Hagan Looks to Split U.S. Attorney Job, WRAL.com, July 10, 2009, http://www.wral.com/news/local/politics/story/5547659/.

[5] Letter from Richard Burr, North Carolina Senior Senator, to Barack Obama, The President of the United States (July 21, 2009) (on file at http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/Burrletter.pdf).

[6] Press Release, White House, President Obama Announces Intent to Nominate Three to Serve on the United States District Court (June 20, 2013) (on file at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov).  

[7] Jennifer Bendery & Sam Stein, Richard Burr Blocks Judicial Nominee After Recommending Her to Obama, Huffington Post, Jan. 8, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/08/richard-burr-judicial-nominee_n_4563083.html.

[8] Press Release, White House, President Obama Nominates Eight to Serve on the United States District Courts (April 28, 2016) (on file at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov).  

[9] Anne Blythe, Burr Vows to Block Obama Nomination to NC Federal Court Seat, The News & Observer, April 28, 2016, http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article74534012.html.

[10] Press Release, President Donald J. Trump Announces Fifth Wave of Judicial Candidates (July 13, 2017) (on file at www.whitehouse.gov/thepressoffice).

[11] Press Release, Burr and Tillis Welcome Nomination of Thomas Farr as District Judge for Eastern North Carolina (July 13, 2017) (on file at www.burr.senate.gov/press/releases).

[12] Joyner v. Abbott Labs., 674 F. Supp. 185, 188 (E.D.N.C. 1987).

[13] N.L.R.B. v. Am. Nat. Can Co., Foster-Forbes Glass Div., 924 F.2d 518, 520 (4th Cir. 1991).

[14] N.L.R.B. v. Lundy Packing Co., 68 F.3d 1577, 1579 (4th Cir. 1995), supplemented, 81 F.3d 25 (4th Cir. 1996).

[15] Bandag, Inc. v. Local 922, United Steel Workers of Am., No. 5:96-CV-450-BR3, 1996 WL 943527, at *1 (E.D.N.C. Dec. 20, 1996), aff’d sub nom. Bandag, Inc. v. Local 922, 121 F.3d 697 (4th Cir. 1997).

[16] Commc’ns Workers of Am. v. Beck, 487 U.S. 735, 745, 108 S. Ct. 2641, 2648, 101 L. Ed. 2d 634 (1988).

[17] See, e.g. Wesley Brown, Hudson and Jackson Exchange Blows in Senate Race, The Free Press, Oct. 15, 2010 (noting that while representing Sen. Brent Jackson, Farr sent a cease-and-desist letter to his Democratic opponent, alleging untruths in his ads).

[18] Hendon v. N. Carolina State Bd. of Elections, 633 F. Supp. 454, 462 (W.D.N.C. 1986).

[19] Pope v. Blue, 809 F. Supp. 392, 394 (W.D.N.C.), aff’d, 506 U.S. 801, 113 S. Ct. 30, 121 L. Ed. 2d 3 (U.S. 1992).  See also Shaw v. Hunt, 861 F. Supp. 408, 417 (E.D.N.C. 1994), rev’d, 517 U.S. 899, 116 S. Ct. 1894, 135 L. Ed. 2d 207 (U.S. 1996).

[20] Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899, 902, 116 S. Ct. 1894, 1899, 135 L. Ed. 2d 207 (U.S. 1996).

[21] Stephenson v. Bartlett, 180 F. Supp. 2d 779, 781 (E.D.N.C. 2001).

[22] NAACP-Greensboro Branch v. Guilford Cty. Bd. of Elections, 858 F. Supp. 2d 516 (M.D.N.C. 2012).

[23] Harris v. McCrory, 159 F. Supp. 3d 600, 604 (M.D.N.C. 2016), aff’d sub nom. Cooper v. Harris, 137 S. Ct. 1455, 197 L. Ed. 2d 837 (U.S. 2017). See also  Covington v. North Carolina, 316 F.R.D. 117, 124 (M.D.N.C. 2016), aff’d, 137 S. Ct. 2211, 198 L. Ed. 2d 655 (U.S. 2017).

[24] League of Women Voters of N. Carolina v. North Carolina, 769 F.3d 224, 230 (4th Cir. 2014).

[25] N. Carolina State Conference, of the NAACP v. McCrory, 156 F. Supp. 3d 683, 686 (M.D.N.C. 2016).

[26] Ken Otterbourg, Closing Arguments Given in Key Voter Rights Trial, N.Y. Times, Feb. 2, 2016.

[27] Taft Wireback, Law Firm Disputes Dismissal from NC Voter ID Case, Greensboro News & Record, Feb. 21, 2017, http://www.greensboro.com/news/government/law-firm-disputes-dismissal-from-nc-voter-id-case/article_fc41ca4c-139e-5faf-9232-a5785ca01aba.html.

[28] See, e.g., Dotson v. Pfizer, Inc., 558 F.3d 284, 290 (4th Cir. 2009); Rodger v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 160 F.R.D. 532, 535 (E.D.N.C. 1995); Mumford v. CSX Transp., 878 F. Supp. 827, 829 (M.D.N.C. 1994), aff’d sub nom. Mumford v. CSX Transp., Inc., 57 F.3d 1066 (4th Cir. 1995).

[29] Miller v. Seaboard Sys. R.R., No. C-85-1156-R, 1986 WL 15502, at *1 (M.D.N.C. Dec. 23, 1986).

[30] Grantham & Mann, Inc. v. Am. Safety Prod., Inc., 831 F.2d 596, 598 (6th Cir. 1987).

[31] Riley v. Dow Corning Corp., 876 F. Supp. 732, 733 (M.D.N.C. 1992), aff’d, 986 F.2d 1414 (4th Cir. 1993).

[32] Open Secrets, https://www.opensecrets.org/donor-lookup/results?name=Thomas+Farr (last visited Aug. 17, 2017).  

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