Still vacant after all these years

Perhaps you remember this saga.

Near the end of 2005, U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard stepped down from his seat on the federal bench in eastern North Carolina, moving to senior status and creating an opening for a new judge there.

Years passed and the state’s U.S. senators couldn’t seem to reach an agreement on a nominee for that slot to recommend to the President. In the meantime, Howard — along with two other judges on senior status, James C. Fox, now 86 and W. Earl Britt, 83 — shared his workload.

Then in 2009 the senators threw their support behind federal prosecutor Jennifer May-Parker, chief of the Appellate Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District in North Carolina, to fill Howard’s slot — one of over 80 district court seats then vacant in the federal judiciary.

If confirmed, May-Parker would have become the first black female federal judge in the history of the Eastern District.

But once President Obama nominated her in 2013, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr — who for years took his senate colleagues to task for holding up judicial nominations — inexplicably blocked the nomination by refusing to submit the “blue slip” evidencing his support, a critical step to moving a judicial candidate to a senate hearing.

May-Parker’s nomination has since lapsed, and Howard’s seat remains vacant.

Plenty of seats elsewhere have been filled, as have new vacancies that have arisen.

The number of district court openings deemed a “judicial emergency” — determined in part by how long a seat has been vacant — is now 32. All of those seats have been open for only a year or two — except for Howard’s.

The chart below shows just how far an outlier North Carolina has become:

nccourts-judicial-emergencies-2016-01-05 (2)

For more on the ongoing judicial vacancy in the Eastern District, read here, here and here.




Still no judge for the Eastern District

The federal court in Raleigh enters 2013 still in a state of judicial emergency, as this article by Patrick Gannon of the Wilmington StarNews reminds us.

That court now has the dubious distinction of having the oldest U.S. District Court judicial vacancy in the country.  The seat, opened up on Dec. 31, 2005 when Judge Malcolm J. Howard took senior status, has been unfilled for more than 2500 days. 

At one point over these last seven years, it looked like we might have some movement towards a nominee:

Nearly four years ago, in July 2009, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., recommended three candidates for the seat in a letter to the president. According to a news release issued at the time, they were: Allen Cobb Jr., senior resident Superior Court judge for Hanover and Pender counties; Jennifer May-Parker, assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District handling criminal appellate cases; and Quentin Sumner, senior resident Superior Court judge in Nash County.

David Ward, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said the Republican senator also submitted recommendations to the White House in July 2009 that were “substantially similar” to Hagan’s. He declined to give names. Burr still awaits word from the White House on a nomination, Ward said.

But since then, mum’s the word.

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.

In the weeks to come, we’ll be taking a closer look at why that’s the case and what can be done before this emergency moves to catastrophe.