State Politics

Burr vows to block Obama nomination to NC federal court seat

Patricia Timmons-Goodson
Patricia Timmons-Goodson

Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a former state Supreme Court justice and vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, was nominated by the president on Thursday to fill a vacancy on the federal court bench in Eastern North Carolina.

President Barack Obama, who is nearing the twilight of his second term, nominated Timmons-Goodson and seven others to serve as judges in federal district courts across the country. Almost immediately, Sen. Richard Burr said he opposed the nomination and would not submit it to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The U.S. Eastern District of North Carolina has the longest-running vacancy, a post that has gone unfilled since Jan. 1, 2006 – the day after federal District Court Judge Malcolm Jones Howard semi-retired.

Though it is unclear why the post has not been filled for more than a decade, many speculate that politics and race have played a role. The district, which spans across 44 counties from the capital to the coast, has never had a black judge seated in the Eastern District, though the population is 27 percent African-American.

In recent years, the NAACP and others have pushed for a black judge to be seated. But that process has been stalled in the U.S. Senate.

The judges, who receive lifetime terms as stipulated by the U.S. Constitution, must receive confirmation by the U.S. Senate before the president can appoint his nominees.

In recent years, Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem, has not submitted that needed response, or “blue slip,” to move the nominating process forward.

In 2013, Obama announced his plans to nominate Jennifer May-Parker, a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District who would have been the first black judge seated. Though submitting a blue slip would not have necessarily meant that Burr supported May-Parker, it would have pushed her name before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Burr has never explained why he did not submit May-Parker’s name for consideration.

The names of potential nominees typically are recommended by senators. Former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat from Greensboro, included May-Parker on a list forwarded to the president several years ago. She submitted a blue slip for May-Parker, but in recent years it has taken both senators to move a nomination forward.

Burr issued a news release late Thursday condemning Obama for what he described as “making a brazenly political nomination,” adding that he refused to support a new nomination in North Carolina from the president.

“Several years ago, when this seat first became vacant, I worked with former Senator Kay Hagan, other interested members of Congress, and the President to fill the vacancy in the Eastern District,” Burr said in his statement. “After the agreement had been made, the President declined to honor it. I remain disappointed that the President broke our agreement. I’m even more disappointed that the White House has chosen to double down by making a brazenly political nomination, and without consulting either of North Carolina’s Senators.”

Burr did not elaborate on the agreement.

Since Hagan’s defeat in 2014, Thom Tillis, former speaker of the state House, has been North Carolina’s other senator.

Burr said he supported other judicial nominations made by Obama and listed Loretta Biggs, a black federal judge in the U.S. Middle District which starts in Durham and spans west to include Orange County, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Burr also listed Catherine Eagles, another federal judge in the Middle District, James Wynn, a black judge on the U.S. Fourth Circuit of Appeals, Max Cogburn, a federal judge in the western district, and Albert Diaz, a Hispanic judge on the U.S. Fourth Circuit appeals court.

“I have always worked in good faith with the White House on North Carolina nominees, and expect the same respect in return,” Burr said in his statement. “It is regrettable that the White House has chosen a different path. This transparent attempt to turn the Eastern District vacancy into an election season stunt is unacceptable, and I will not support a new nomination in North Carolina from this Administration.”

Timmons-Goodson, 61, was the first black woman to serve on the state Supreme Court, a term that lasted from 2006 to 2012. Eight years prior to being a justice on the state’s highest court, she was an associate judge on the N.C. Court of Appeals. A native of Florence, S.C., Timmons-Goodson received her law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1979.

Obama appointed Timmons-Goodson to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2014, two years after she stepped down from the state Supreme Court and after she received a master of judicial studies degree from Duke University.

The civil rights commission is tasked with investigating, reporting on, and making recommendations on civil rights issues in the country.

Most recently, the commission issued a split-vote decision on North Carolina’s House Bill 2 and Mississipi’s “religious objections” law. Timmons-Goodson, who registers as unaffiliated with either party, joined the majority statement, saying HB2 and Mississippi’s law are part of a trend toward using religious beliefs to deny people their rights.

News of Obama’s nomination late Thursday brought quick praise from U.S. Congressman G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson.

“Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson is an excellent choice,” Butterfield said in a statement. “Her character and reputation are beyond reproach. ....This vacancy has been deemed to be a judicial emergency by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. ...It is the responsibility of the Republican leadership in the United States Senate to conduct a hearing and proceed to a vote on this nomination.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1