Politics & Government

After bitter debate, Thomas Farr nomination scheduled for vote Wednesday

Raleigh attorney Thomas Farr, who has been nominated four times by two Republican presidents for a federal judgeship in the eastern district of North Carolina, is scheduled for his first vote before a full and divided Senate on Wednesday afternoon.

If confirmed, the 64-year-old Farr would fill the longest vacancy in the federal judiciary — a spot on the district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina that has been open since Jan. 1, 2006.

But Farr faces strong opposition from Democrats and civil rights groups, whose vocal condemnation of Farr intensified Tuesday on the eve of the vote. The North Carolina NAACP plans to bus protesters to the Capitol on Wednesday to rally against Farr, who critics claim has worked for decades to disenfranchise black voters.

“There’s nothing in his life that would suggest that he is racist,” said former Raleigh mayor Tom Fetzer, who has been friends with Farr for nearly 40 years. Each served as the best man in the other’s wedding. “It’s patently unfair. He is an honorable, decent man. What they say, not only is it not true, but it’s not fair.”

The Eastern District of North Carolina covers 44 counties from Raleigh to the coast. It has seven district court judges, including the chief judge. Though the district’s population is 27 percent black, the court has never had a black judge.

Farr was twice nominated by President George W. Bush to replace Malcolm J. Howard, but never received a vote in the Democratic-controlled Congress. President Barack Obama nominated two black women for the position, but both were blocked by Sen. Richard Burr who said in 2016 that Obama “declined to honor” an earlier agreement with Burr and then-Sen. Kay Hagan on federal judges.

“We need to integrate the Eastern District,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat, said in a conference call with reporters. “Thomas Farr is not fit to serve. He has a long, long history of being hostile to voting rights and of voter suppression.”

Democrats and civil rights groups have pointed to Farr’s work for Sen. Jesse Helms’ 1990 campaign — the campaign included voter intimidation against black voters — and his recent work defending Republican lawmakers in cases on gerrymandering and voter ID as evidence of Farr’s hostility to voting rights. The voter ID law was struck down by federal judges who said it targeted blacks with “surgical precision.”

“Every senator here, including our Republican friends, should be disturbed that Mr. Farr has been involved, often directly, in multiple attempts to disenfranchise minority voters,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said on the Senate floor.

Farr has said he was not in meetings where the Helms campaign decided to send postcards to black voters warning of arrest at the polls, though he did defend the campaign in court. Critics contend he lied about it during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, said he had a prosecutor look into the postcard claims and is satisfied with Farr’s answers.

“There’s no there there,” Tillis said in an interview at the Capitol.

Adding to the drama are the bitterly divided partisan lines in the Senate. The 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats have pledged to oppose Farr. So, too, has Arizona Republican Jeff Flake unless he gets an unlikely vote on a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller. If the remaining 50 Republicans in the Senate vote for Farr, he will be confirmed with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote.

“His job as a lawyer is to represent his clients and he did. So how do you make claims about someone’s beliefs based on the representation of their clients?” Fetzer said.

It was Fetzer, in 1981, who first brought Farr into North Carolina politics. Working for then-Sen. John East, who had been assigned to the labor committee, Fetzer helped hire Farr, who was working at the National Right to Work Foundation. Farr graduated from Hillsdale College in Michigan before obtaining law degrees from Emory College and Georgetown.

Fetzer pointed to Farr’s decision to attend Hillsdale, which was founded in 1844 and allowed blacks and women to attend from its inception, as evidence that Farr is not the person he’s been portrayed as by critics.

The college has become a favorite of conservatives such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and commentator George Will in recent years after it declined all federal funding so as not to have to comply with any government mandates, including affirmative action, according to The New York Times. The school has an undergraduate population of about 1,500 — an “overwhelmingly white student body,” the Times wrote.

“You cannot come out of an environment like Hillsdale College and think or behave that way. Why would you chose a school that’s mission is to not discriminate based on race or gender. Its founding principles,” Fetzer said. “If you chose a place to go and educate yourself that has those principles, how could you come out any other way? It’s just not who he is.”

Farr grew up in Cincinnati and is an avid fan of the city’s professional baseball and football teams. Farr played soccer and dragged Fetzer into an over-30 league decades ago, teaching him how to play goalie. Fetzer said Farr has a “wicked sense of humor.”

Reached by email, Farr declined comment for this story, writing only: “I hope it is good.”

But it is his legal mind, Fetzer said, that qualifies him for the job. Farr was rated “well qualified” by the American Bar Association in 2017.

“This is a really brilliant mind. He knows history in a way that few people do,” said Fetzer, a former chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party and now a lobbyist. “He is and he’s known as one of the preeminent labor lawyers not only in the state, but in the country.”

But opponents, including the progressive judicial advocacy group the Alliance For Justice, say Farr has been hostile to workers’ rights, including the right to unionize and employee protections. Farr represented Avis in a racial discrimination case, defending the right of the car rental company to offer different terms to African-Americans.

“It is like putting the fox over the hen house,” Rev. William Barber II, the past president of the NC NAACP and a vocal critic of Farr’s, said in the press call. “This would be a slap in the face of our democracy, literally, to have this man be anywhere near the federal court.”

Barber accused Farr of “having practiced white supremacy for decades” in an editorial published in The New York Times.

Farr, who was nominated by President Donald Trump in 2017 and again early this year, hasn’t spoken publicly since his confirmation hearing in 2017.

“It’s a terrible toll to be compared to Hitler in your hometown newspaper. After having led an exemplary life, it’s heartbreaking,” Fetzer said. “This is a man with a wife and three sons and they have to read this ridiculous hyperbole. No one would wish that on anyone.”

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.