Politics & Government

North Carolina senator names panel on judgeships

WASHINGTON — Hoping to break a 15-year logjam on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, Sen. Kay Hagan will name a panel to help her find candidates for judgeships and other federal positions.

The N.C. freshman Democrat said Thursday the committee would help her screen candidates for openings on the 4th Circuit, District Courts, and U.S. attorney positions.

"This committee will be comprised of experienced professionals from across the state and will help ensure that the most qualified and competent candidates are ultimately selected for recommendation," Hagan said. “In the past, judicial nominations from both sides of the aisle have been delayed and often derailed because of partisan objections and bickering, regardless of the credentials of the nominees."

Hagan said she would name four members — a chairman, and a person from each of the eastern, western and central regions.

Other states have used similar panels. California, which has two Democratic senators, relied on a bipartisan slate of commissioners to recommend candidates for district judgeships during the administration of President Bush, a Republican.

"They were generally pretty successful in securing agreement for people in these kinds of positions," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

"These panels have been valuable, especially where they’re characterized as merit-selection panels. It's public and we know who those people are. It's better than having someone in the back room or calling a friend at a law firm."

Tobias said Hagan would be smart to name professors or former judges or attorneys general who have widespread respect by the public. One name he suggested was David Levi, dean of the Duke University law school and a former federal judge.

Tobias said there's no standard way for senators to come up with recommendations — they can rely on the bar association in their state, or call friends or hand-pick them.

The final decision on a nominee, particularly with high-profile posts like appellate courts, rests with the White House, even after advice from senators.

One of the 4th Circuit's four vacancies, a North Carolina slot, has been open longer than any other seat in the nation — 15 years. The dispute dates back even earlier, when Senate Democrats refused to consider then-Sen. Jesse Helms' nominee for a seat. Helms, in turn, quashed all of President Clinton’s nominees.

Only one judge on the 15-seat 4th Circuit is from North Carolina, Allyson Duncan of Raleigh, though it's more populous than the other states served by the court — South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. The court hears appeals from the U.S. district courts in its circuit on a range of civil and criminal matters, with some of the more high-profile cases involving terrorism, abortion and death penalty.