Weekly Briefing

Still waiting for integration

North Carolina’s federal courts remain remarkably undiverse

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that President Obama has done a better job than his predecessors in attempting to bring some diversity to the judges who serve in the federal judiciary. Senate ultra-conservatives continue to stymie several worthy and highly-rated appointees, but at least the President is (as in so many other areas) trying.

As one national blog noted a few weeks ago:

“Obama’s choices for the bench also are the most diverse-ever group of judicial nominations. Forty-seven percent are women compared with 23 percent for George W. Bush; 21 percent are African American versus 7 percent for Bush; 11 percent are Hispanic and 7 percent are Asian compared to 9 percent and 1 percent for Bush.”

Especially if he is re-elected next fall, it’s clear that federal bench will look a heck of a lot more like the American people in 2017 than it did in 2009.

One notable exception to this promising trend, however, is North Carolina. Here in the nation’s tenth largest state – a place in which only about a third of the population consists of white males, but more than one in five persons is African-American – the federal judiciary looks pretty much like you might have expected it to look in the 70’s…the 1870’s that is.

Consider the following rather remarkable numbers:

According to the website of the Federal Judicial Center, there are 17 sitting federal District Court judges in North Carolina. (District Court judges, of course, are the ones who interact with juries and are the most visible “public face” of the federal judiciary). Sixteen of the 17 are white. Fourteen of them are white men. The sole person of color, James A. Beaty of the Middle District was appointed by President Clinton in 1994 – almost a generation ago. During his two terms, President George W. Bush had the opportunity to make nine appointments in North Carolina. All of his nominations were white.   

Now consider these:

In the entire history of North Carolina, there have only been 51 federal District Court Judges. Out of that number, the only other judge of color besides Judge Beaty was the late Judge Richard Erwin, who was appointed by President Carter. Both Beaty and Erwin served in the Middle District. Neither the Western nor Eastern Districts has ever had a judge of color. Of course the Eastern District has the greatest percentage of African-Americans of any region in the state. It contains all of the counties in the state with greater than 50% African-American population.

There have also only been two women:  Judge Catherine Eagles (appointed just last year by President Obama – also to the Middle District) and Judge Louise Flanagan (appointed in the Eastern District in 2003 by President Bush).

That’s it – two African-American men and two white women in two centuries-plus. 

At last count, North Carolina’s single African-American was the lowest number of any southern state. Virginia, in contrast, has five African-American District Court judges. Georgia has four. Florida has six. Louisiana has three. Even, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi have two each.

While each of these numbers is also too low in comparison to each state’s respective population, they do serve to highlight how far behind North Carolina has fallen and how far it has to go.

Time to do better

That there is a disturbing and long unmet need to improve the racial diversity of federal judges in North Carolina is no particular secret. The North Carolina NAACP and Legislative Black Caucus have each called upon the President to address the issue in recent years.

This is from the Black Caucus letter – which highlighted the Eastern District:

“We are very concerned that there has never been a person of color on the Eastern District bench. As African-American elected members of the General Assembly, each of us has spent much of our careers working to overcome the history of exclusion and discrimination that previously limited the ability of African-American voters in this state to participate in the political process as equal citizens with equal rights.

We know that voters in this part of the state care deeply about the importance of inclusion and fair representation, and understand the vital role of the federal courts in protecting basic civil and human rights. The Eastern District includes all of the counties in the state that are greater than 50% Black or African-American in population, and has the greatest percentage of African-Americans of any region in the state. Unlike every other state in the south, North Carolina has only one African-American judge out of thirteen federal judges at the trial court level. This imbalance must be corrected.”  

This is from a letter sent by the Rev. William Barber, head of the NC-NAACP back in 2009, 11 days before the President took office:

“So I petition you…to select appointees for our federal courts and Justice Department that will enforce the original purposes of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments: to eliminate the badges and indices of slavery, to produce equal protection under the law, and to repair the 250 years of systematic suppression of Black voters. There has never been a Federal Judge of color in the Eastern District or Western District of North Carolina, although there are scores of qualified attorneys of color in North Carolina who have demonstrated their deep understanding of these constitutional rights. They do not have to be educated about the rough side of the mountain. They have climbed it.”  

Barber might have added that North Carolina already has four African-American appellate-level state court judges who would all make obvious and strong candidates: Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson and  Court of Appeals judges Cheri Beasley, Wanda Bryant and Cressie Thigpen.

Currently, there is one federal District Court vacancy for President Obama to fill in North Carolina – a vacancy that’s been sitting open for some time. Let’s hope that the President uses it in the very near future as an opportunity to build upon his solid national appointments record over the last two and a half years.

With such a long way to go, there’s no time to waste.