The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court handed their counterparts in North Carolina a victory this week, affirming the state Supreme Court’s ruling in State v. Heien and holding that that a traffic stop is justified if based upon an officer’s reasonable but mistaken belief that a violation of law has occurred.

Heien, you may recall, involved an officer’s stop of an Hispanic man driving a vehicle with a broken tail light, on the ostensible but mistaken belief that having only one tail light working was against the law in North Carolina.  A vehicle search followed, then an arrest and ultimately a conviction for cocaine trafficking.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Monday came down with barely a nod to the current climate of racial unrest and minority suspicion of policing in the community — except for the lone dissent by Justice Sonia Sostmayor — and added yet another layer of ambiguity to the bounds of reasonable policing at a time when just the opposite is needed, as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick aptly points out in this essay.

Says Lithwick:

Why does any of this matter? Because Vasquez wasn’t stopped by the cops for having a broken tail light. He was trailed by an officer because he was driving while looking “stiff and nervous” and for “gripping the steering wheel at a 10 and 2 position, looking straight ahead.” In other words, he was a Hispanic man driving a beat-up car in North Carolina, and the officer followed him for doing what the rest of us do every single day: driving while holding on to a steering wheel and looking forward.

Justice Sotomayor tried to point this out during argument, but to no avail.  Lithwick adds:

You would think that we had not just lived through a summer in which we were painfully reminded of the realities of militarized police, civil asset forfeiture, racial profiling, relentless police harassment of citizens, and frivolous stops for trivial infractions. These infractions can lead to mounting debts which in many minority communities turn the criminal justice system into something like a series of debtors’ prisons. The discussion in Heien never reflects the fact that a long, sordid history of pretextual and harassing traffic stops have fostered fear and anxiety in minority communities. As President Obama put it, there is a “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” But from the perspective of the high court, it’s as if the summer of 2014 was happening in an alternate universe.


Loretta BiggsJust before midnight, the U.S. Senate confirmed by voice vote a slew of pending Obama judicial candidates, including Loretta Copeland Biggs, who will serve in the state’s Middle District.

Biggs will take the seat opened up by Judge James Beaty, who nows serves on senior status.

Her addition to the court is welcome news and will begin to address the stunning lack of diversity on the state’s federal bench. She will be the first African-American woman to serve as a lifetime appointed federal judge in North Carolina.

But the state’s Eastern District continues to operate with a district court vacancy that has been pending for more than nine years.

The president’s nominee for that slot, Jennifer Prescod May-Parker — who would have been the first African-American to serve as a federal judge in that part of the state — failed to get even a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. That’s because Sen. Richard Burr has inexplicably withheld the “blue slip” indicating his approval, even though he initially supported her nomination and despite his public statements condemning delays and other obstructive tactics interfering with judicial confirmations.

Read more about Biggs here.



School vouchersLate last week the state Supreme Court moved on the school voucher case now pending there, allowing the State Education Assistance Authority to undertake administrative steps needed to get the program on track for an August 2015 disbursement of funds, but otherwise keeping in place an order preventing any such disbursement until the justices say otherwise.

The court also expedited the appeal process and set February 17, 2015 for argument.

In papers filed Dec. 10,  Sen. Pres. Phil Berger,  Speaker Thom Tillis and parents who intervened in the case asked the court to allow the program to move ahead full throttle while the appeal is pending — including the disbursement of funds in August 2015 in the event the court has not rendered its decision.

The court granted that request only to the extent of allowing program administration to move forward — including the application process scheduled to run from Jan. 20 – Feb. 27, 2015.



(Updated: Late this morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of Loretta Biggs along with two other district court nominees, sending them to the Senate floor for a full confirmation vote.  For more information, read below and here.)

North Carolina’s latest nominee for a seat on the federal bench, Loretta Copeland Biggs, is slated for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee today, and if approved moves one-step closer to a confirmation vote on the Senate floor.

But Biggs — like several other pending nominees hanging on as Congress approaches adjournment for the year — may be running out of time.

As The Hill reports this morning, Senate Republicans are digging in their heels and hoping to delay votes on the President’s nominees until January, when they take control of the chamber. At that point, all those who are pending will have to be renominated and will face a tougher road to confirmation.

That’s more than 170 nominations, including nine district court nominees who’ve already been approved by Judiciary and another three (with Biggs) who are scheduled for a committee vote today, plus 18 State Department picks.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he’ll keep the Senate in session until his colleagues vote at least on the President’s picks for the head of  Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sarah Saldaña;  head of Social Security Administration, Carolyn Colvin; and the nine pending federal judges.

Advocacy groups are also pushing for floor votes on Biggs and the other two court nominees who’ll hopefully come out of committee today.

Biggs’ nomination has been pending for a little under three months and appeared to be heading smoothly toward confirmation after receiving support from both home state senators, Kay Hagan and Richard Burr.  If confirmed, she’ll fill the seat vacated by U.S. District Judge James Beaty in the state’s Middle District.

Meanwhile, the candidate named to fill the country’s longest running federal district court vacancy — now open in eastern North Carolina for 3,287 days — Jennifer May-Parker, has yet to receive even a committee hearing. That’s because Sen. Burr, who once supported her, refuses to return the “blue slip” to get May-Parker a date on the Judiciary Committee calendar.

Click here for more on the tortured history of North Carolina’s federal judicial vacancies and the lack of diversity of those who have served.