Civil Rights, Racial Disputes Fuel Divide Over Judicial Nominee

North Carolina senators defend Thomas Farr

Sens. Richard M. Burr, right, and Thom Tillis prepare for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Sept. 20. The two support North Carolinian Thomas Farr for a federal judgeship, a nomination that has raised the ire of civil rights groups and African Americans. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump’s pick for a federal judgeship in North Carolina has drawn the opposition of the Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights groups in part because of past work defending the state’s congressional redistricting plans and voter ID law, which courts have struck down as unfair to minorities.

The vacancy in the Eastern District of North Carolina has fallen victim to the Tar Heel State’s contentious politics and the Senate’s confirmation process — making it now the oldest judicial vacancy in the country at 11 years and 9 months.

But Trump’s nomination of Thomas Farr, who was grilled Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, has reopened wounds for a seat in a judicial district that is nearly 30 percent black but has never had a black federal judge.

“It is no exaggeration to say that had the White House deliberately sought to identify an attorney in North Carolina with a more hostile record on African-American voting rights and workers’ rights than Thomas Farr, it could hardly have done so,” the members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote in a letter to the committee.

Farr, who received a rating of “unanimously well-qualified” from the American Bar Association, has often represented Republicans in the state. The Raleigh-based lawyer, who is white, was nominated twice by President George W. Bush for the same judgeship but was blocked by Senate Democrats.

Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., described Farr as having an accomplished legal career working on issues of constitutional law, employment law and worker safety. Burr blocked two of President Barack Obama’s nominees for the seat without explanation, both of whom would have been the first black federal judge in the district.

“The most important thing is, Tom Farr is a good man,” Burr said when introducing Farr on Wednesday. “And I think what we look for are good people to serve in a capacity like a district judge. He fills every piece of the word ‘good.’”

Among his work listed on his nominations questionnaire, Farr served as a board member and chairman from 2015 to 2017 of Grow NC Strong, which was first launched in 2014 to help the U.S. Senate campaign of then-North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis.

“He has sterling credentials and I know he’ll be an independent judge who will be fair to all parties who come before him,” said Tillis, who acted as chairman of the confirmation hearing. “I have no doubt Tom will apply the law faithfully and fairly.”

Civil rights groups question that conclusion. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund says Farr “has built a legal practice protecting the interests of Republican politicians at the expense of voting rights for people of color.”

The NAACP LDF highlighted several cases Farr handled, including his defense of North Carolina congressional districts that the Supreme Court in May found had been unconstitutionally drawn with race as a predominant factor. The group also pointed to a 2016 case in which he defended the state’s law that reduced early voting, eliminated same-day registration and had a strict voter ID requirement.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit called the North Carolina law “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow,” ruling that it was passed with the purpose of discriminating against black voters and targeted them “with almost surgical precision.”

Farr characterized the law as “lenient” and “sensible” in a Supreme Court petition, but the high court declined to take up the case, the NAACP LDF pointed out.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked Farr on Wednesday about what she called an “aggressive” opinion by the 4th Circuit in the case. Farr responded that many states have fewer voter protections than the North Carolina law, and that a trial judge found that it did not have a discriminatory impact.

“The 4th Circuit decision is binding on everyone, and as a judge I would have to follow it and I will follow it,” Farr said. “But at the time our clients enacted those laws I do not believe they thought they were purposely discriminating against African-Americans.”

The Judiciary Committee will vote on Farr’s nomination at a later date.

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