North Carolina is the largest state among the five covered by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, and it has about one-third of the population of the region.
By rights, it ought to have about one-third of the court's 12 judges.
It has one: Allyson Duncan of Raleigh is North Carolina's lone member on the appellate court that reviews decisions from federal courts in this state. Other than Judge Dickson Phillips, who took senior status and became semi-retired 15 years ago, there is no other Tar Heel judge reviewing federal court decisions from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia.
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So the largest state in the circuit has one judge. South Carolina has three, Virginia has three, Maryland has two and West Virginia has two.
The reason is politics -- or rather, a failure of politicians. If politics is the art of the possible, then the process of filling judgeships once held by North Carolinians on the 4th Circuit Court has become the art of the impossible.
And those who have practiced the art of the impossible are North Carolina's senators, starting when Phillips stepped aside in 1994 and the state's two senators began bickering over who should fill his seat.
The late Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, didn't like the candidates nominated by President Bill Clinton for the 4th Circuit. Helms was still peeved because Democrats had blocked one of his 4th Circuit nominees. In fact, Helms didn't think the court needed any more judges at all, whether from North Carolina or not.
And when Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, was in office, he blocked Helms' and Helms blocked his nominees for the appeals court, too. And when two Republicans were in office (Sen. Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole) and together worked to try to get District Judges Terry Boyle or Robert Conrad confirmed by the Senate, they could not persuade their Democratic colleagues to hold a vote.
It's amazing that Duncan, a Republican, was able to be confirmed, but a temporary truce between Edwards and Dole allowed her nomination to go forward so North Carolina would have at least one judge.
This standoff is beyond absurd. It's childish. It maintains a system that doesn't work for citizens of either party. And it keeps off the 4th Circuit any number of potentially outstanding judges from this state.
According to the court's Web site, only seven people from North Carolina have ever served on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
That's nuts. But there's some reason for hope. Last year Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of ending the relentless partisanship that affects politics in Washington. Sen. Burr, who is in the fifth year of his term, and first-term Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan both say they want to end the standoff that has kept N.C. judges off the 4th Circuit bench. They've worked together on tobacco legislation, and anything's possible.
Burr said Friday that he has spoken to Obama and to Hagan about the state's under-representation on the court and expressed his desire to end the feud.
It's not likely that he and Hagan will develop lists of candidates jointly, he said, but added, "I think we will work very closely. ... I understand they won, and I'm not saying we need to put Republicans on the bench. My position is that we need the best qualified person on the bench."
Burr and Hagan can do their constituents a great service by finding common ground on judicial nominees and expanding this state's presence on the 4th Circuit Court. It's time to break this cycle of bickering.