Elections

3 NC Senate candidates, 3 different views on judicial vacancies

Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Vice Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., talk during a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about worldwide threats, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 9, 2016.
Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Vice Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., talk during a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about worldwide threats, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 9, 2016. AP

The winner of North Carolina’s Senate race likely will play a role in confirming the next Supreme Court justice, and the three candidates disagree on how to fill the vacancy on the deeply divided high court.

Incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr faces former state Rep. Deborah Ross and pizza deliveryman Libertarian Sean Haugh in the November election.

The death last February of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the court’s conservative icons, has left the nation’s highest court split between four conservatives and four liberals. Senate Republicans have refused to hold a confirmation hearing for his successor. President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, on March 16.

“The American people deserve a voice in the nomination of the next Supreme Court Justice,” Burr said in March. “This appointment could easily tip the balance of the court in a direction not supported by the American people, as evidenced by 2014’s election results giving Republicans both the Senate and House.”

I think the obstructionism of the Senate Republicans is not the right way to go, that these nominees deserve to have an up-down vote.

Sean Haugh

Ross would consider supporting Garland. Haugh would not. Garland has been portrayed by some as having a liberal view on gun rights. That doesn’t mesh with Haugh’s fierce belief that every citizen has the right to own a weapon.

Voting history, promises

Burr believes that a lifetime appointment to the federal bench should go to someone who can judge impartially and in accordance with the Constitution, said Burr spokeswoman Taylor Holgate.

“Sen. Burr has voted for two Supreme Court justices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, based on their character, expertise and record of fidelity to the rule of law,” she said.

President George W. Bush nominated Roberts to replace Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who died from cancer in September 2005. Roberts replaced him later that month. Additionally, Bush nominated Samuel Alito to replace former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor after she announced her retirement. Alito replaced O’Connor in January 2006.

Burr opposed Obama’s nominations of Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Sen. Burr will reject any candidate whose record indicates that they use the court to put in place their personal agenda or political views, or who will not rule in accordance with the law and the Constitution.

Burr spokeswoman Taylor Holgate

Ross would have supported the two justices Obama nominated, said Ross spokesman Cole Leiter.

Additionally, Ross would refrain from putting insider politics before the needs of North Carolinians, unlike Burr, he said.

“Deborah will meet with and ensure each judicial nominee is given a timely hearing and a fair up-or-down vote,” he said. “She will base her support for judicial nominees on their qualifications to serve on the bench and uphold our Constitution, not on partisan politics.”

Ross said she had remained impressed with O’Connor’s respect for the different branches of government. That is a desirable quality in future judges, she said. O’Connor was nominated by President Ronald Reagan.

Part of my personal affection for her is that (Sandra Day O’Connor) was the first woman who was appointed, nominated and then confirmed on the Supreme Court, and I was in high school when that happened and that had a big mark on me. But she’s also the last justice who was confirmed in court who had served in another branch of government, and she understood and respected the different branches of government and how they coexist, are codependent and have checks and balances. And when you’ve had that personal experience, you bring a different lens to the job.

Deborah Ross

Haugh said he would also support someone with a strong record of upholding “the plain meaning of” the Constitution.

“I’d like to see justices that see voting as a fundamental right that is at the core of our Democracy and make it as open as possible,” he said. “And then also, Second Amendment issues are very important to me. I take a very plain view of the Second Amendment and I don’t want to see the federal courts empowering Congress to take away those rights from people.”

North Carolina’s Eastern District

Closer to home is a vacant judicial seat that is stirring up controversy. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina has been without a federal district judge for more than a decade.

“This is hurting justice in the eastern district of North Carolina,” Ross said. “It is a gross dereliction of (Burr’s) duties and it is a violation of his oath of office. He is playing politics with the lives of people in the eastern district of North Carolina and has blatant disregard of our justice system.”

Burr spokeswoman Holgate did not explain why the senator hasn’t supporting moving ahead with filling the vacancy. But she called the Eastern District “one of the most efficient” in the country.

“As of the latest data available, from September 2015, North Carolina’s Eastern District only had 13 civil cases pending over three years, when the national average for this type of case was more than 200,” she said in an email. “The Eastern District had zero cases pending in the other four categories measured by federal data (motions, bench trials, bankruptcy appeals and Social Security appeals pending over six months).”

Haugh said the situation was yet another example of partisan politics.

“Again, I think the obstructionism of the Senate Republicans is not the right way to go, that these nominees deserve to have an up-down vote,” he said.

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