Federal Appeals Court Under Fire

It’s one of the most influential and conservative courts in the nation — and all the judges are white. Josh Gerstein reports on the battle over the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

By Josh Gerstein ABCNEWS.com WASHINGTON, July 16

— Eleven men and two women sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. All of them are white.

That’s a fact some find particularly disturbing because more African-Americans live in the states of the fourth circuit than in any other circuit.

President Clinton has tried three times to install a black judge on the court. None of the attempts has been successful.

James Wynn, a moderate state court judge from North Carolina, is the latest nominee to get bogged down in the Senate. He has been waiting almost a year for a hearing.

“Quite honestly, it does not look like I’m going to get a hearing at least anytime in the near future,” Wynn said in an interview.

Who’s to Blame?

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms (R) has blocked Wynn’s confirmation by preventing a hearing on his nomination. Under Senate rules, Helms must consent to the nomination of any judge from his state. Helms has refused to clear Wynn’s nomination and that of every other North Carolina resident Clinton has proposed for the appeals court.

Speaking to the NAACP in Baltimore last Thursday, Clinton blasted Helms for obstructing the nomination process.

“For over seven years now, he has stopped my attempts to integrate the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals,” the president said. “This is outrageous.”

Sen. Helms declined to be interviewed, but his staff denied any racial bias. They say the Senator simply agrees with the court’s chief judge, J. Harvie Wilkinson III, that the panel’s workload doesn’t require any more judges.

In 1997, Wilkinson testified that confirming new judges to the court could hurt its deliberations. “Growth threatens to turn courts into bureaucracies and to destroy the humane values that inhere in collegial decision-making,” he said. Wilkinson also declined to be interviewed for this story.

For some in Congress, the talk of needing to preserve collegiality smacks of racism. “There is an effort on the part of the chief judge of this circuit and Senator Helms to keep this court not just conservative but all white,” Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told ABCNEWS. “It’s not just about conservatism with these guys. It’s about race.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it’s the president who is injecting race into the debate about the judicial nominations.

“This is a political season. He’s appearing before political groups and I think he’s trying to play the race card and that is bad,” Sessions said.

Sessions defended the delays as necessary because of the irrevocable nature of a federal judgeship. “Once they are confirmed they’re there for their life, so we have a responsibility to look at those nominees carefully, Sessions said. “If they’re controversial, sometimes it takes a while to work through the system,” he added.

Political Payback

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