Obama to nominate prosecutor to fill judicial vacancy in Eastern NC

ablythe@newsobserver.comJune 21, 2013 

President Barack Obama announced Thursday that he plans to nominate prosecutor Jennifer Prescod May-Parker to fill the country’s longest-running judicial vacancy in the federal district courts – a 2,730-day opening in North Carolina’s Eastern District.

May-Parker, a federal prosecutor in North Carolina’s Eastern District, would be the first African-American U.S. District Court judge in the 44-county region that spans from Raleigh to the coast. She would be one of only two sitting black federal judges in the state.

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.

The release from the White House offered no details on why Obama nominated May-Parker, nor did it say anything about the timing. The vacancy in the Eastern District of North Carolina has been open since Jan. 1, 2006, the day after federal District Court Judge Malcolm Jones Howard semi-retired.

“I am pleased to nominate these distinguished individuals to serve on the United States District Court bench,” was the only statement from the president in the release announcing his intentions.

Thomas Walker, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, the federal prosecutor’s office where May-Parker has worked as the chief of the appellate division since 2010, praised the president’s nominee.

“Jennifer is well respected for her legal expertise, her judgment and her moral character,” Walker said. “She is a daily example of what it means to be a true public servant.”

It was also unclear why Obama, first elected in 2008, waited until Thursday to put forward a nomination for North Carolina’s Eastern District vacancy. Typically, though, presidents wait for both home-state senators, regardless of party, to consent to a nomination.

Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat from Greensboro, advocated for the nominee several years ago, and lauded the president’s decision to put forward May-Parker’s name.

“This seat has been open for far too long, and I’m pleased that we finally have a nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina,” Hagan said in a statement. “North Carolina’s population is almost one-quarter African-American, yet we have only one African-American judge at the federal district court level. Increasing diversity on the federal bench should be a priority.”

Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem, was unavailable for comment. His press aide said the senator had a full schedule on Thursday.

‘A fortuitous circumstance’

May-Parker received her law degree in 1991 from the State University of New York at Buffalo, three years after receiving a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Geneseo. She began her legal career with a seven-year stint in the New York County District Attorney’s Office. From 1998 to 1999, she worked as an assistant attorney general in the civil environmental division of the N.C. Department of Justice and became a federal prosecutor after that.

May-Parker was one of three names that Hagan passed along to the president in 2009.

Burley Mitchell Jr., a retired chief justice of the state Supreme Court, served on a committee that Hagan convened several years ago. Mitchell helped interview possible candidates for the post and developed a list of recommendations to be considered for open judicial seats and federal prosecutor posts across the state.

In addition to May-Parker, Hagan also provided the president the names of Allen Cobb Jr., the senior resident Superior Court judge for New Hanover and Pender counties, and Quentin Sumner, senior resident Superior Court judge in Nash County. May-Parker and Sumner are African-Americans. Cobb is white.

“As a lawyer and a judge, I want to say race makes no difference, and it’s the quality of justice administered that matters,” Mitchell said. “But the truth is race does make a difference to a lot of people.”

With May-Parker, Mitchell said, the state would get an “impressive lawyer” who stood out among a class of “extremely well-qualified candidates.

“It’s a fortuitous circumstance, but it’s great,” Mitchell said. “A lot of people really wanted an African-American judge down there, and she’s a win-win.”

Confirmation by year’s end

Since the judicial post opened in the Eastern District of North Carolina, representatives of the state NAACP and others have advocated for a black judge to be seated, particularly since the population in the region is more than 25 percent black.

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. But there has never been an African-American judge in the state’s eastern or western federal judicial districts.

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, has followed the judicial vacancies and nominations of Obama. He said Thursday that there are eight nominees ahead of the three that Obama announced today awaiting Senate Judiciary hearings. He said he expected May-Parker’s group to be scheduled for a hearing in September and a committee vote in October with full confirmation possible by the end of the year.

May-Parker, who was one of three judicial candidates put forward by Obama on Thursday, issued a statement saying she was “humbled and honored” to be nominated by the president.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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