RALEIGH — More than seven years have passed since federal District Court Judge Malcolm Jones Howard semi-retired on Dec. 31, 2005.
His change in status left a vacancy on the bench in the federal Eastern District of North Carolina, a 44-county region that spans from Raleigh to the coast.
Though the 2,646-day vacancy is the longest running of all the federal district court openings across the country, there has been no push from the White House to fill the post.
It is unclear why the seat has remained open for so long. But representatives of the state NAACP said they worry that politics and race are playing a part in the standstill.
Judge James A. Beaty, an African-American, hears cases in the Middle District of North Carolina, a 24-county region that stretches from Statesville east to Durham. There has never been an African-American judge, however, in the state’s eastern or western federal judicial districts.
This week, the state NAACP renewed its push to change that.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, head of the state chapter of the NAACP, said he thinks it’s important to seat a black judge on the federal bench in the Eastern District, particularly given that the population in the region is more than 25 percent black. On Wednesday, Barber and other NAACP representatives delivered a letter renewing concerns they’ve raised numerous times to the Rocky Mount office of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican serving his second term.
Burr, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Winston-Salem, could be instrumental in any appointments to the federal district court bench in his home state. But he has yet to state publicly whom he supports for the job.
The judges, who receive lifetime terms, as stipulated by the U.S. Constitution, are appointed by the president after confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
The names of potential nominees typically are recommended by senators, though House members sometimes pass along names, too.
The Senate Judiciary Committee typically conducts confirmation hearings.
It was unclear why President Barack Obama, first elected in 2008, has not put forward a nomination for North Carolina’s Eastern District vacancy. Efforts to reach the White House were unsuccessful. Typically, though, presidents wait for both home-state senators, regardless of party, to consent to a nomination.
Burley Mitchell Jr., a retired chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said this week that he served on a committee several years ago that Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat from Greensboro, convened.
Mitchell helped interview candidates and develop recommendations for people to be considered for open judicial seats and federal prosecutor posts across the state. From that list of names, Hagan passed along three possibilities in July 2009 for the president to consider for the judicial vacancy in the Eastern District of North Carolina.
On that list were Allen Cobb Jr., the senior resident Superior Court judge for New Hanover and Pender counties; Jennifer May-Parker, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District; and Quentin Sumner, senior resident Superior Court judge in Nash County.
May-Parker and Sumner are African-Americans. Cobb is white.
“Sen. Burr submitted judicial recommendations to President Obama in July 2009, and those recommendations included minorities in every district,” Rachel Hicks, a spokeswoman in Burr’s Washington office, said in a statement this week. But she did not respond further when asked for specific names on the list.
Barber said Friday that Burr’s office has sent similar statements to the NAACP but never elaborated further on the group’s pleas for a commitment to diversity. The NAACP representatives have tried to meet with Burr, Barber said, on many occasions but have yet to be successful.
The eastern district has three full-time judges and three on senior status, meaning they continue to hear some cases but no longer carry a full load. All six are white.
Charles W. Hall, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said because the post has been vacant for more than 2,500 days it is considered a “judicial emergency.” Texas has the next longest federal district court vacancy. A seat there opened in 2008.
The effect of vacancies often is more apparent on the civil court side, legal analysts say, because criminal cases subject to speedy trial laws take precedence.
“North Carolina should really be offended that the federal Eastern District of North Carolina looks like the civil rights movement never took place,” Barber said.
Barber said the vacancy offers a “unique opportunity” to bring together a diverse panel to develop a more recent list for the president to consider.
Late last year, a new name surfaced in Washington political circles as a possibility for the post.
Patricia Timmons-Goodson, the first African-American female to serve on the state’s highest court, resigned from the N.C. Supreme Court in November.
“Race has been a factor for more than 200 years,” Barber said. “This should be a unique and historic opportunity to bring diversity.”