The nearly ten-year vacant federal district court slot in eastern North Carolina tops the list of “most ridiculously long judicial vacancies that the Senate hasn’t filled,” as highlighted by the Huffington Post this past weekend.

Here’s a look at the worst Senate offenders when it comes to not filling long-vacant judgeships in their home states.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.)

There’s a seat on U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina that’s been empty for 3,387 days. That’s more than nine years, and it has no nominee.

Burr avoided questions from The Huffington Post last year about why he was blocking a previous nominee for the slot, Jennifer May-Parker. His obstruction of May-Parker was particularly puzzling, given that he previously recommended her to Obama.

A Burr spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the hold-up for filling the seat, and on whether Burr plans to recommend a nominee soon. A request for comment also was not returned from Burr’s home-state counterpart, freshman Sen. Thom Tillis (R).

Of course none of that is news to court watchers here, many of whom continue to scratch their heads as to why U.S. Senator Richard Burr refused last year to support President Obama’s nominee, Jennifer May-Parker, after initially offering his approval.

Particularly disconcerting is the senator’s apparent refusal to heed his own words uttered  back in 2005, when he told his colleagues that “denying judicial nominees of both parties, who seek to serve their country, an up-or-down vote, simply is not fair.  It was certainly not the intention of our Founding Fathers when they designed and created this very institution.”

With no new nominee in the hopper, the Eastern District — which is also close to the top of judicial districts having the most residents per judgeship — will continue to trudge along with a caseload being handled by three active sitting judges with the part-time help of three judges on senior status — the youngest of whom is 75.


In case you missed it, the Wall Street Journal weighed in on Tuesday on the growing backlog of civil cases in federal courts across the country, due mostly to more criminal cases and fewer judges.

That’s a topic Policy Watch has written about frequently — especially as it relates to North Carolina’s Eastern District, where a judgeship has gone unfilled for close to ten years.

As we pointed out recently:

Fewer judges handling rising caseloads means that it’s taking longer for cases, especially civil ones, to get to trial. Data collected by the federal courts show that it now takes 63 percent longer for a civil case to get to trial. In 1993 it took 16 months; in 2013, 23 months.


Numbers from the Eastern District fall in line with this trend. For the year ending September 2014, it took an average of 27 months from filing for a civil case to get to trial.

But there’s another reason why the state’s U.S. Senators should act with a sense of urgency to get the Eastern District vacancy filled and perhaps also seek another judgeship for that court: The number of judges there hasn’t kept up with population growth in the region.

According to population data analyzed by the Journal and charted in its print edition (subscription required for online), North Carolina’s Eastern District is second only to California’s Eastern District in terms of number of residents per judgeship.


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.