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Quick and decisive action needed to resolve judicial emergencies

Close to 100 attorneys, progressive advocates and Triangle-area residents gathered today to discuss the continuing judicial vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, growing numbers of federal judicial vacancies elsewhere, delayed U.S. Senate confirmations of presidential nominees and the ongoing need for increased diversity on the bench.

Speakers at the event, “Why Courts Matter,” included 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James A. Wynn, Jr., and Andrew Blotky, director of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

As Blotky pointed out, there are 82 current vacancies on the federal bench, with an additional 20 vacancies that will occur this year—meaning that nearly 65 percent of the population lives in a community with a courtroom vacancy.

And while it took roughly 35 days for the Senate to get George W. Bush’s nominees to a vote, it’s taken 150 days for Barack Obama’s to get to that point.

Both Wynn and Blotky called for the quick confirmation of fair, impartial, clear-thinking and diverse judges to fill those vacancies—which even when filled, Wynn added, would only solve the backlog. The U.S. Judicial Conference has called for the creation of additional judgeships to meet caseload demand.

The judges who sit on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina handle one of the heaviest caseloads in the country, approaching nearly 800 cases per judge in 2012. And they’ve been waiting for help for close to eight years now.

The court, based in Raleigh but with courtrooms elsewhere along the eastern part of the state, now has the dubious distinction of having the oldest federal judicial vacancy in the country. The seat&mdashh;opened up on Dec. 31, 2005, when Judge Malcolm J. Howard took senior status—has been unfilled for more than 2,500 days.

In the meantime, the caseload of the absent but to-be-named federal judge is being shared by three senior district judges who have put in more than their fair share of time on the bench: Hon. James C. Fox, 84, a Reagan appointee who went on senior status in 2001; Hon. W. Earl Britt, 80, a Carter appointee who went on senior status in 1997; and Hon. Malcolm J. Howard, 73, a Reagan appointee who went on senior status, as noted above, in 2005.

For some time, progressive groups have been calling for the appointment of an African-American judge to that seat to reflect the population in Eastern North Carolina—thus far unsuccessfully.

Under the Obama administration, the federal judiciary has become more diverse than it has been under any previous president. Of the President’s confirmed nominees, 42 percent have been women; 18 percent, African-American; 12 percent, Latinos; and seven percent, Asian American. He has nominated nine openly gay candidates, of whom four have been confirmed. And of his 24 pending nominees, the majority belong to a minority population.

Diversity matters on the bench, Blotky said, because bringing together judges from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences widens the lens through which they might consider problems and reach decisions.

“Even one judge can make the difference,” Judge Wynn said.

Diversity also matters, Blotky added, because it increases the public’s confidence that their judges are more representative of the community and more open to understanding situations brought before them.

The event was sponsored by the North Carolina Justice Center and NC Policy Watch.

Video of the event can be viewed here.

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