Politics & Government

With a Jamaican American UNC professor, has Trump found judge to end 13-year vacancy?

Richard E. Myers II
Richard E. Myers II UNC

A University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill law professor appears poised to break the color barrier in the federal judiciary in the Eastern District of North Carolina.

But Richard Myers II — nominated to fill the longest-running vacancy on the federal bench — doesn’t want to talk about that.

“I’m Jamaican of mixed ancestry,” Myers told McClatchy after his Sept. 11 confirmation hearing. Myers was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and immigrated to Wilmington when he was 10.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said during his introduction that Myers would be “the first African American on his court.”

Asked if he considered himself African American, Myers said, “I consider myself human. I consider myself human. Jamaican American. For some folks, it’s a really important thing for them. For me, I would really like to be considered on my own merits every step of the way.”

Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield, whose district covers much of Eastern North Carolina and is a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said after President Donald Trump nominated Myers that he wished Trump had taken the opportunity to diversify the bench.

“Every African American I know is proud to make that identification as African American,” Butterfield told McClatchy last month. “If he is indeed African American, I would expect that he would be proud of it and say so.”

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina covers 44 counties from Raleigh to the coast. Court is held in six cities: Elizabeth City, Fayetteville, Greenville, New Bern, Raleigh, and Wilmington.

Myers would need to be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate, both controlled by Republicans. Senate Republicans have made confirming Trump-nominated judges one of their top priorities, especially as differences with the Democratic-led House stall most legislation. The Senate has confirmed 105 Trump-nominated district court judges.

“I have faith in his ability to do the right thing every day in serving as a judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina,” North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr said in introducing Myers.

Thus far, Myers’ confirmation has not met the kind of fierce opposition that some of Trump’s nominees have faced. That includes Raleigh lawyer Thomas Farr, twice nominated by Trump to this same post, whose confirmation was derailed by concerns about campaign work he did for former Sen. Jesse Helms.

The seat has been vacant since Jan. 1, 2006 — more than 13 years. Farr was first nominated by President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama nominated two African American women for the judgeship, but Burr blocked both in a dispute with Obama.

Trump then twice nominated Farr, who appeared headed for confirmation in 2018 before Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone black Republican in the Senate, announced he could not support Farr, citing questions about his role in voter suppression efforts targeted at African Americans during 1984 and 1990 campaigns.

Now the 51-year-old Myers, a longtime college professor who previously worked as a newspaper reporter and as a federal prosecutor, seems set to end the long wait.

“I believe his story is one we can all admire and appreciate,” Burr said.

Myers was the first in his family to go to college, graduating from UNC-Wilmington before becoming a newspaper reporter in the city. He went to Chapel Hill for law school and then clerked for Judge David Sentelle, a North Carolina native and UNC-CH graduate, on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Thank you to my parents who brought me to the United States as a child because they believed America would provide me with great opportunity,” Myers said in his testimony. “It certainly has.”

Myers went to work for a private law firm, but the attacks of Sept. 11 spurred him into public service. Myers said he had been considering a change, but the day after the attacks he applied to become a federal prosecutor. He was an assistant U.S. attorney in central California and then the Eastern District of North Carolina.

“Sept. 11th happened and on Sept. 11th, I decided I’m not waiting anymore. This is a really, really important time,” he said. “This would be the highest and best use of my talents right now.”

In 2004, he joined the faculty at UNC where he has remained since. Myers said “only an amazing opportunity for new service” would have convinced him to leave the school and his students.

Some former students described him as engaging and someone who approached teaching in a less formal, more personable way. Myers served as the auctioneer for Carolina Public Interest Law Organization and offered two items up for the 2019 live auction: an authentic Jamaican BBQ experience for up to six students and a trip for two students to a shooting range with Myers and a former SWAT team member “where you can get a hands-on experience to criminal law.”

“He has an outsized positive effect on our law school in so many different ways,” said Martin H. Brinkley, dean of the law school.

Abortion debate

Myers got just one real inquiry at his confirmation hearing, which featured senators coming and going frequently for other votes. It centered on a 2008 article published in the Boston College Law Review.

In it, Myers argues for a constitutional amendment that would create a 25-year limit on all criminal legislation. The change, he said, would “force regular legislative oversight of the criminal codes. It would redistribute power among the branches by reducing the courts’ incentives to create new conceptions of substantive due process to redress perceived process failures. And it would reset the checks and balances for each generation in favor of liberty.”

He presents various examples of categories of crimes that have changed, notably drugs, and the difficulty in removing statutes from the books.

“Changes over time can result in different laws reflecting those different attitudes existing simultaneously on the books,” he wrote.

And, he said, that has pushed the courts into political areas that “has led to an increasingly politicized process of choosing who [sits] on the [Supreme] Court.”

When the Supreme Court tries to keep up with changing times, he argued, it can get it right (cases designed to dismantle Jim Crow laws), wrong (as in some death penalty cases) or “exacerbate a critical social and political divide” (abortion).

“Areas that some justices believed they took off the political table will come back into play. And they maybe coming back into play with statutes — passed long ago and unenforced for generations — awaiting the enforcers,” Myers wrote in arguing for the 25-year limit.

In the hearing, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked if he thought Roe v. Wade was settled law. Myers said yes. When asked if “women have rights to control their own reproductive systems, obviously within certain confines,” Myers said: “I believe that Roe and [Casey v. Planned Parenthood] are the law of the land and I would faithfully apply those to any case that came before me.”

Myers said he hadn’t thought of the article in a long time before the questions.

“He’s very much his own man. He thinks for himself. He’s not interested in following some prevailing set of values that somebody else has created in order to be part of a club that somebody else has defined,” Brinkley said. “He’s a very, very independent guy. He says what he thinks, but once the argument is done, his loyalty is to the institution that he’s serving.”

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Domecast politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

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.