The chief private attorney who defended North Carolina redistricting maps and a voter identification law authored by Republican state legislators that got struck down is getting another chance at a federal judgeship vacant for more than 11 years.
The White House announced Thursday that President Donald Trump intends to nominate Thomas Farr as a U.S. District Court judge for a region covering 44 counties from Raleigh to the coast. Farr has backing from both of North Carolina’s Republican U.S. senators — a key requirement to advance a president nominee from a particular state.
Farr “is widely respected as one of the best legal minds in North Carolina,” Sen. Thom Tillis said in a release. Sen. Richard Burr added: “His wealth of experience will serve North Carolina well.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Farr would fill the judgeship he was initially nominated to in 2006 by President George W. Bush and again in 2007. Farr’s nomination never got a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The position has sat empty since the end of 2005, with the departure of Judge Malcolm Howard to semi-retirement status, making it the longest federal judicial vacancy in the country, according to data on a federal court website . Farr declined comment Thursday.
The vacancy was steeped in state politics and race even before Farr’s latest nomination.
President Barack Obama had nominated two black female attorneys to fill Howard’s vacancy — first federal prosecutor Jennifer May-Parker, then former state Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson — but neither received a hearing or vote. In each case, North Carolina black leaders urged senators to confirm, saying it was important to have an African-American jurist in a region of the state with a sizeable black population. Farr is white.
Burr wouldn’t support Timmons-Goodson’s nomination and blasted Obama for what he called a “transparent attempt to turn the Eastern District vacancy into an election season stunt.” Burr was running for re-election last year.
Farr, a labor and constitutional law attorney, and other lawyers at the Ogletree Deakins firm were hired by GOP leaders in charge of the General Assembly to defend in court congressional and legislative boundaries originally approved in 2011. The boundaries helped expand Republican majorities in future elections. Farr later helped defend a wide-ranging 2013 voting law that required photo identification to vote, reduced the number of early voting days and eliminated same-day registration during that period.
The voters and civil rights groups that sued alleged the boundaries were illegal racial gerrymanders designed to pack black voters in certain districts, while in turn making surrounding districts more white and Republican. For voter ID, the state NAACP and others alleged the restrictions would make it harder for black and poor people to vote. Republicans countered the maps were fair and legal and the voting changes designed to build citizen confidence in elections.
After initial rulings that upheld the maps and voting law, federal courts last year struck down both U.S. House and General Assembly districts, requiring them to be redrawn. And the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out photo ID and early voting changes, alleging legislators targeted black voter “with almost surgical precision.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who represents many eastern counties, urged senators 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.”
“This appointment simply maintains the status quo in a district with a large population of African American citizens,” Butterfield added.
A news release from Burr and Tillis highlighted Farr’s lengthy legal career and designation by the American Bar Association as “well qualified” when nominated in 2006.