Raleigh’s Farr moves closer to confirmation and filling long-open federal judge post

FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2017, file photo, Thomas Farr is sworn in during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be a District Judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2017, file photo, Thomas Farr is sworn in during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be a District Judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP Photo

Raleigh attorney Thomas Farr moved one step closer to final confirmation to become a district judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina. With Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote, the Senate agreed to limit debate on Farr’s nomination, setting up a final vote Thursday.

President Donald Trump nominated the 64-year-old Farr to be a U.S. District Court Judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina in 2017 and again earlier this year. Though Farr cleared a Senate committee in January, his nomination has languished in the Senate — as Democrats and civil rights groups hammered him as hostile to voting rights for blacks.

All 49 senators in the Democratic caucus, which includes two independents, voted against moving Farr’s nomination forward. Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, also voted against the nomination, citing the refusal of the Senate to take up a bill aimed at protecting special counsel Robert Mueller. But the Senate’s other 50 Republicans all voted to advance Farr to a final confirmation vote.

That vote is expected Thursday.

Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, was the last to vote, after a long wait. Scott said he was on the phone with the author of a 1991 Department of Justice document about then-Sen. Jesse Helms’ campaign obtained by The Washington Post on Tuesday. Scott said he also spoke with Farr on Wednesday.

Scott said he has not made up his mind how he will vote on Farr’s confirmation. He said the author of the memo provided enough information for him to advance Farr’s nomination, “but I still have to talk to the author again and continue to look at what role (Farr) did play at every facet of the process from 1984 and 1990,” Scott said, referencing Helms’ Senate campaigns.

Helms’ 1990 campaign included voter intimidation tactics aimed at black voters, notably sending postcards to voters warning of arrest at the polls. Farr said he had no knowledge of the postcards before they were sent.

Senators do not have to vote the same way on final confirmation. Scott voted to advance another Trump judicial nominee this summer, but then opted not to vote for his confirmation over racially insensitive writings, a move that sunk Ryan Bounds’ nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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Scott, asked about ways Republicans could have better outreach to African-American voters, said: “There are a lot of folks that can be judges in states including North Carolina beside Tom Farr.”

Farr, rated “well-qualified” by the American Bar Association, is an accomplished labor lawyer. But his work for Helms during his 1990 re-election campaign against Harvey Gantt, and recent work defending North Carolina Republicans in lawsuits against voter ID and gerrymandering have drawn the ire of Democrats and civil rights groups.

Gantt, a former mayor of Charlotte who ran unsuccessfully against Helms for Senate in 1990 and 1996, said Farr’s work with the Helms campaign should be disqualifying.

“Federal district courts in North Carolina should have judges who are fair, impartial, and committed to equal justice under law. Thomas Farr’s role in interfering with the voting rights of Black North Carolinians represents a stain on his record from which he cannot recover,” Gannt said in a statement released Wednesday morning.

A panel of federal judges said in 2016 that the voter ID law passed by Republicans targeted African-American voters with “almost surgical precision.”

Farr has “a long, unbroken record that dates 25 years of actively targeting black disenfranchisement,” Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton said. “There are so many examples that make him unqualified.”

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The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, which covers 44 counties from Raleigh to the Atlantic coast, has never had an African-American judge in its current 146-year history. The district’s population is 27 percent black.

“That is not a rational reason to oppose his nomination. It’s not his fault,” said former Raleigh mayor Tom Fetzer, a close friend of Farr’s for nearly 40 years.

A seat has been open on the court since Jan. 1, 2006. Farr, twice nominated by President George W. Bush, was blocked by a Democratic-controlled Senate. President Barack Obama nominated two African-American women for the role, but neither received a vote in committee. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who voted to confirm other Obama-appointed judges in North Carolina, said in 2016 that Obama “broke our agreement” over Eastern District nominees and blocked consideration of his appointees.

“He’s going to be a good judge, and I think he’s been unfairly treated,” Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, a strong Farr supporter from North Carolina, said at the Capitol earlier this week.

What the liberal groups “fear most is that Farr knows and understands their dishonest tactics, hyperbolic litigation agenda, and reliance on stoking racial fears,” said J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative group that aims to “fight against lawlessness in American elections.”

The North Carolina NAACP brought about 40 people to the Capitol from the state Wednesday to meet with senators and urge them to vote no.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or