Unconfirmed: The Neverending Vacancy

When Judge Malcolm Howard took senior status on December 31, 2005, the 66-year-old Reagan appointee likely expected a successor to be appointed in a matter of months.  Today, over twelve years later, Howard’s seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina is still vacant, the longest district court vacancy in U.S. history.[1]  The story of this vacancy spans three Administrations and three failed nominations, as well as involving the ugly specter of racism and politics in the “new south.”

Let us start off with two facts: first, the Eastern District of North Carolina, which covers 44 counties from Raleigh into the North Carolina coastline, has one of the highest percentage of black residents in the nation, with over 25% of the population being African American;[2] second, the Eastern District of North Carolina has never had a single African American judge.[3]  North Carolina’s relative paucity of African American federal judges relates partly back to Sen. Jesse Helms, the notoriously conservative senior senator from North Carolina.  Over his thirty year tenure, Helms oversaw the nominations of 15 district court judges and three appellate judges from North Carolina, only two of whom were black.  As such, by the time that Howard moved to senior status, many felt that the Eastern District of North Carolina was overdue for an African American judge.  However, President George W. Bush’s nominated Thomas Alvin Farr, a 52-year-old white private practice attorney from Raleigh.

Farr’s nomination came before a Democratic-controlled Senate on January 9, 2007, alongside the nominations of Thomas Schroeder, William Osteen Jr., and Martin Reidinger to fill three other North Carolina vacancies.[4]  The Senate confirmed Osteen and Reidinger on September 10, 2007, and confirmed Schroeder on December 14, 2007.  However, despite having the strong support of North Carolina senators Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, Farr received neither a hearing nor a vote.  In the 2008 elections, two simultaneous actions killed Farr’s hope of confirmation: first, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, a Democrat, was elected to be the new President of the United States; second, Dole was defeated for re-election by Democrat Kay Hagan.

Entering office with a new Democratic president, Hagan recommended three candidates to President Obama for the Howard seat: Superior Court Judges Allen Cobb and Quentin Sumner, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer May-Parker.[5]  Notably, two of the three candidates, Sumner and May-Parker, were African American.  On July 21, Burr wrote to Obama endorsing the candidacies of Cobb and May-Parker for the seat.[6]

However, despite the joint recommendations, the White House failed to put a nomination forward.  As his first term came to an end, Obama managed to place two North Carolina judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, as well as two more on the District Courts.  And yet, the Administration failed to nominate anyone to the Eastern District.

Some speculated that the Administration had failed to nominate a candidate because it was looking for an African American nominee.[7]  Rep. G.K. Butterfield urged the White House to nominate an African American to the seat, noting that 26.5% of the residents under the Eastern District were black.[8]  For her part, Hagan refused to recommend any additional candidates to the White House.[9]

On June 20, 2013, four and a half years after he came to office, Obama finally submitted a nomination to the Howard seat, which had, by now, been vacant for seven and a half years.  The nominee was Jennifer May-Parker, the African American federal prosecutor recommended by Hagan and Burr in July 2009.[10]  However, despite his support for May-Parker in 2009, Burr refused to return a blue slip on the nomination.[11]  Burr declined to offer a reason for his blockade of May-Parker, but his intransigence prevented a hearing or a vote on May-Parker.  Furthermore, in the 2014 elections, Hagan lost re-election to Republican Thom Tillis.  Bowing to the political realities, the Obama Administration chose not to renominate Jennifer May-Parker in the Republican-controlled 114th Congress.

After withdrawing May-Parker’s nomination in early 2015, Obama did not submit another nomination to the Howard seat until April 2016, when he nominated Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice.[12]  The nomination drew a sharp response from Burr who argued that Obama had broken an agreement that would have filled the vacancy, calling the nomination an “election season stunt.”[13]  Despite criticism within his home-state,[14] Burr stuck to his stance, blocking Timmons-Goodson for the rest of the Obama administration.  Notably, in a private meeting, Burr took credit for the “longest vacancy,” touting it as an example of his frustration of the Obama Administration’s goals.[15]  Overall, Burr weathered the criticism and won re-election.  Furthermore, the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 put an end to the Timmons-Goodson nomination.

With a new Republican president and two Republican senators, the stars seemed aligned for the swift confirmation of a nominee to the Howard seat.  Sure enough, on July 13, 2017, Trump renominated Farr, over ten years after his initial nomination by Bush.  However, since then, Farr’s second nomination has bogged down over criticism of his work defending voting restrictions in North Carolina, and his alleged role in illegal voter suppression while working on the Helms campaign in 1990.[16]  As a result, Farr’s nomination has twice passed through the Judiciary Committee on narrow party-line votes, and has still not been called up by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Furthermore, Farr’s confirmation on the floor isn’t assured.  With Sen. John McCain frequently absent for medical reasons, McConnell has only a narrow 50-49 margin on controversial votes.  With Democrats united against Farr, McConnell cannot afford any defections if he intends to confirm Farr.  Thus, with the NAACP and other groups lobbying moderate Republicans heavily,[17] the outcome is still uncertain.  And as such, the neverending vacancy goes on, still unfilled.

[1] See Will Doran, Sen. Richard Burr Claims Responsibility for Longest Judicial Vacancy in U.S. History, Politifact North Carolina, Nov. 3, 2016, http://www.politifact.com/north-carolina/statements/2016/nov/03/richard-burr/sen-richard-burr-claims-responsibility-longest-jud/.  

[2] See Ari Berman, He Defended North Carolina’s Voter Suppression Law. Now He’s Set to Become a Federal Judge There, Mother Jones, Oct. 18, 2017, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/10/he-defended-north-carolinas-voter-suppression-law-now-hes-set-to-become-a-federal-judge-there/.

[3] See id.

[4] Archive of Federal Judicial Vacancies, http://www.uscourts.gov/judges-judgeships/judicial-vacancies/archive-judicial-vacancies/2007/02/vacancies/pdf (last visited March 11, 2018).

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

[6] 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).  

[7] Patrick Gannon, Race, Politics Keep Judge’s Seat Empty for 7 Years, Star News, Jan. 12, 2013, http://www.starnewsonline.com/news/20130112/race-poltics-keep-judges-seat-empty-for-7-years.

[8] See id.

[9] See id.

[10] Press Release, Office of President Barack Obama, 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/the-press-office).

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

[12] Press Release, Office of President Barack Obama, President Obama Nominates Eight to Serve on the United States District Courts (April 26, 2016) (on file at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office).

[13] Press Release, Office of Sen. Richard Burr, Sen. Burr’s Statement on the White House’s Nomination for the Eastern District Judge (April 29, 2016) (on file at https://www.burr.senate.gov/press/releases/).  

[14] CBC Editorial, Burr Needs to End Political Games, Back Timmons-Goodson Judicial Appointment, WRAL.com, Oct. 5, 2016, http://www.wral.com/editorial-burr-needs-to-end-petty-political-games-back-timmons-goodson-judicial-appointment/16083659/.  

[15] See Will Doran, Sen. Richard Burr Claims Responsibility for Longest Judicial Vacancy in U.S. History, Politifact North Carolina, Nov. 3, 2016, http://www.politifact.com/north-carolina/statements/2016/nov/03/richard-burr/sen-richard-burr-claims-responsibility-longest-jud/.  

[16] See Alexander Nazaryan, President Trump is Rewarding a Lawyer Who Has Fought to Block the Black Vote with a Plum Federal Judgeship, Newsweek, Sept. 21, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/trump-north-carolina-farr-voter-suppression-668649.

[17] See Anne Blythe, Trump’s Pick on Bench is ‘Tantamount to Hitler Wreacking Havoc’ Among Jews, NAACP Leader Says, News & Observer, Mar. 5, 2018, http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article203587414.html.