Politics & Government

N.C. judges Diaz and Wynn play Senate confirmation waiting game

Nearly six months have gone by since Judges Albert Diaz of Charlotte and James Wynn of Raleigh landed on the to-do list of the full U.S. Senate, and still they have not received confirmation votes.

Both men are nominated for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, a step below the Supreme Court, in what was a coup for North Carolina's expanded presence on the bench.

And now, just as U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat, is pushing for Diaz and Wynn to be confirmed, the judges likely will have to stand in line again behind another confirmation: that of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

"We now have the opportunity to have two very highly qualified judges, and we need to get them going," Hagan said Wednesday. "They're just sort of in limbo."

The votes for Diaz and Wynn have been caught up in partisan tussling and scheduling conflicts as Democratic and Republican leaders try to negotiate debate time for various issues.

There's some time pressure for Wynn and Diaz, too. Just three weeks remain before senators expect to head home for their August recess. When they return after Labor Day, much of the focus will be on getting back home again to campaign for the midterm elections.

Both Diaz and Wynn have anonymous holds placed on their confirmations, so by Senate rules they can't be approved without a floor debate. Scheduling that debate has been the issue.

Regan Lachapelle, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said Republicans have so far rejected requests to schedule votes on the judges' nominations.

Diaz, a special Superior Court judge, and Wynn, who sits on the N.C. Court of Appeals, were recommended in Senate committee votes on Jan. 28. Law professor Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond said the Democratic leadership has been unwilling to yield valuable time for lengthy debate and has been unable to negotiate a few hours' time for floor argument on Circuit Court nominees.

Republicans, meanwhile, haven't agreed to schedule debate time for many high court judicial votes, he said.

"You can blame both sides, but I think the Republicans have earned more credit," Tobias said. "The person who could shake it loose is the senior senator from North Carolina. If he would go to the (Republican) leadership, we could force a vote."

Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of Winston-Salem supports both nominations. In a statement Wednesday, Burr spokesman David Ward said Burr "applauds Sen. Hagan for her ongoing efforts to encourage Majority Leader Reid to schedule their nominations for votes on the Senate floor."

Democrats have complained for months that Republicans are holding up judicial nominees from the Obama administration.

"There is a very slow stalling process by the other party that is not allowing us to move forward," Hagan said.

The last Circuit Court nominee to be confirmed was in April.

"It's generally not an objection to a specific nominee. It's usually scheduling," said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the body's top Republican.

He also said, though, that the Senate is confirming Obama nominees faster than those during the Bush administration. And he pointed out that George W. Bush's nominee for North Carolina's open seat on the 4th Circuit, Robert Conrad, never received even a hearing in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Democrats contend the Senate had confirmed 57 of Bush's judicial nominees by this point in his presidency. Thirty-six Obama nominees have been confirmed, Lachapelle said.

Now, the Senate is focused on Kagan's Supreme Court nomination, expected for a vote just before the August recess. It's unusual for the body to tackle other nominees at the same time, but Hagan said she has hope.

"I think we ought to be able to work it in," Hagan said.

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