NC's Eastern District judicial vacancy is longest in the nation

ablythe@newsobserver.comSeptember 20, 2013 

— North Carolina still has the nation’s longest-running judicial vacancy in the federal district courts, despite a much heralded attempt by President Barack Obama nearly three months ago to fill the post.

The Eastern District of North Carolina has had a judicial vacancy since Jan. 1, 2006 – the day after federal District Court Judge Malcolm Jones Howard semi-retired.

It is unclear why the seat has remained open for so long. Earlier this year, NAACP representatives raised the possibility that politics and race played a large role.

Then in June, Obama announced his plans to nominate Jennifer May-Parker, a federal prosecutor in the 44-county Eastern District that stretches from Raleigh to the coast.

The president’s intention to nominate an African-American woman was heralded by civil rights advocates as a much-needed step toward diversity. The district has a population that is more than 25 percent black, but its federal district court bench has no African-American judges appointed.

The nomination of May-Parker seemed to indicate that the federal prosecutor at the helm of the Eastern District appellate division since 2010 had been vetted by the White House and passed the necessary security clearance. The American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary rated May-Parker as “qualified.”

But May-Parker’s nomination seems to have hit an unexplained roadblock.

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.

No Burr ‘blue slip’

Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem, has not submitted a needed response – known as a “blue slip” – from his office to get May-Parker’s name on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s agenda. Submitting a blue slip would not necessarily mean Burr was supporting May-Parker, but it is required for the process to move forward.

The names of potential nominees typically are recommended by senators. North Carolina’s other senator, Kay Hagan, a Democrat from Greensboro, included May-Parker on a list forwarded to the president several years ago. Her office aides have said she still supports the president’s nominee and she has submitted her blue slip.

Rachel Hicks, a press assistant for Burr, said Thursday in a telephone interview that she would inquire about Burr’s blue slip She has not responded since by phone or email.

Glenn Sugameli, founder of Judging the Environment, an organization that tracks federal vacancies and the impact they can have on civil court calendars and environmental lawsuits, said he has been baffled by the stall in North Carolina’s Eastern District.

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.

The deadline was Friday for submitting blue slips and getting the nomination on the agenda for the Senate Judiciary Committee’s meeting next week. The longer the delay, the less likely there will be a confirmation by the end of this year, despite the anticipation of many court advocates.

‘Festering boil’

When a post has been vacant for more than 2,500 days, it is considered a “judicial emergency” by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The Eastern District post has been open for more than 2,800 days.

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.

“To believe you would block someone in a district that’s had a vacancy for that long, that’s pretty shocking, amazing and appalling,” Sugameli said Friday. “It’s a festering boil. It’s an open embarrassment for Sen. Burr – or it should be.”

Sugameli said what complicates the continued vacancy is the silence from Burr as to why he has not submitted his blue slip.

“At this point, I think there’s an obligation for the senator to explain,” Sugameli said. “Once you know what the problem is you can start to address it. When all you have is total silence, that makes it more difficult.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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