Politics & Government

N.C. Sen. Hagan drove 4th Circuit Court nominations

Word about North Carolina's shoddy representation on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reached U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan last year the way such political concerns often do: by way of a friend of a friend.

In this case, the friend was her husband, Chip Hagan, who was out walking one morning in November 2008 with one of his lawyer pals, Greensboro defense attorney Locke Clifford. "I said, 'One of the most urgent jobs is to get North Carolina back in the game,'" Clifford said. "Chip said, 'You know what? Kay needs to hear this.'"

Hagan had just been elected to the Senate. That Saturday morning, Clifford walked into her living room and told her that the 15-seat 4th Circuit Court of Appeals had just one North Carolina member, a Republican, and that it needed more.

His suggestion would, eventually, help lead the way to President Barack Obama's nominations this month of two Tar Heel judges. Judge James Wynn of Raleigh and Judge Albert Diaz of Charlotte await confirmation hearings for their nominations to the Court of Appeals, a step below the U.S. Supreme Court.

Those two nominations could help shift the 4th Circuit away from its tradition as the most conservative federal appeals circuit in the nation.

After that Saturday morning conversation in Greensboro, Clifford went home to draw up charts about the reasons North Carolina needed more than one representative on the 4th Circuit. How it had more population than the other four states on the circuit. How it had the second-highest caseload. How it had five vacant seats waiting for nominees.

"It was just a glaring inconsistency any way you looked at it," Clifford said.

Hagan agreed.

"I thought, 'This is something I can make a mark on that I'm going to fight for,'" Hagan recalled in a recent interview. "North Carolina deserves three [nominations]. So that's what I started fighting for, with the hope in mind that we'd get two."

Hagan said she began talking with White House officials as soon as she moved to Washington. She introduced herself to counsel Greg Craig, the man leading the judicial appointments effort. She and Clifford hosted him for lunch in the Senate dining room.

And when Obama called Hagan last January asking for a vote on a bank bailout, she turned the conversation to the 4th Circuit. "He said, 'I hear you, I definitely hear you,'" Hagan said. "He didn't commit, 'Oh, you're guaranteed,' but understood what I was saying, that this was something North Carolina is due.

"And I still think we're due one more," she added.

Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of Winston-Salem also has supported increasing the state's representation on the Court of Appeals. He could not be reached for this article.

The White House last week declined an interview request for Craig (who later resigned his position because of unrelated issue) and did not comment about Hagan's efforts to increase seats on the 4th Circuit.

In the end, Obama nominated judges for four of the five vacancies: two from North Carolina, one from Maryland and one from Virginia. One vacancy remains.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who studies the 4th Circuit, said Hagan deserves credit for her work so far on the 4th Circuit.

"I think she has crowing rights," he said. "It isn't done lightly, and it's important to the state, and I think it's a real feather in her cap."

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