Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both tried, unsuccessfully, to fill a judicial vacancy in a North Carolina federal district court that's been empty now for almost 12 years. President Donald Trump is now trying to fill the seat again, albeit with a familiar candidate.
The White House on Thursday announced that Trump would nominate Thomas Farr, a Raleigh-based attorney who has represented state lawmakers in defending the state's redistricting plans and voter ID law, for the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Farr was Bush's nominee for the same seat in 2006, but his nomination never made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
There have been bad feelings all around about the North Carolina vacancy for years. Republicans complained about the Democrat-controlled Senate's failure to act on Farr's nomination during the Bush administration; he never had a hearing. Obama twice put forward a nominee for the seat, but both nominees were blocked by North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr., so they also never had hearings.
Adding to the long-standing controversy surrounding the North Carolina vacancy is the fact that the Eastern District court serves a region with a large African American population, but has never had an African American judge. Some North Carolina politicians and members of the legal community have advocated in the past for the White House to prioritize diversity in choosing a nominee. Farr is a white man. Both of Obama's nominees were African American women.
North Carolina Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that he was "disappointed" by Farr's nomination, pointing to Farr's involvement defending the Republican state legislature's redistricting plans as well as the lack of diversity on the bench.
"The counties in the Eastern District have a substantial African American population but the Court does not reflect that diversity. The Court should include African American judges and this appointment simply maintains the status quo in a district with a large population of African American citizens," Butterfield said. "I urge the United States Senate to carefully scrutinize the record of Thomas Farr and determine if he can impartially serve as a judge in cases involving voting and civil rights."
Farr has the support of North Carolina's two Republican senators, Burr – who backed Farr when he was first nominated in 2006 – and Thom Tillis. With the Senate now controlled by Republicans, Trump faces better odds getting his nominee confirmed than his predecessors.
"I am pleased once again to support Thomas Farr for District Judge of the Eastern District of North Carolina,” Burr said in a statement. “His wealth of experience will serve North Carolina well.”
Farr is an attorney at the law firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart. According to his firm bio, his practice focuses on workplace safety, employment issues, and constitutional law. Reached by phone on Thursday afternoon, he declined to comment on his nomination.
Robert Orr, a lawyer in North Carolina and a former state supreme court justice, said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News that Farr was a "predictable selection," calling his conservative credentials "exemplary."
"I think Tom is a good choice. He’s very experienced. You have to operate on the principle or on the belief that whoever the nominee is will decide cases in a fair and impartial way, and I think Tom will," said Orr, a Republican who made headlines last year when he walked out of the GOP convention after reportedly calling Trump a "danger" to the United States. "Does he bring a conservative background to the bench? Absolutely. He’s also a really experienced layer, which is important to me."
Orr said that he believed diversity among judges was important, but that there aren't many Republican, African American lawyers in North Carolina with the requisite experience.
Farr is one of 11 federal district court nominees announced by the White House on Thursday. The Senate so far has confirmed two of Trump's lower court nominees. There are 136 judicial vacancies, with more than 20 additional seats expected to open up in the near future, according to the federal judiciary's statistics.