Trump pick for NC judge accused of ‘hostile record on African-American voting rights and workers’ rights’

Thomas Farr, center, conferring with attorneys during a break at a hearing to determine whether the Voter ID law requires a change to the N.C. Constitution.
Thomas Farr, center, conferring with attorneys during a break at a hearing to determine whether the Voter ID law requires a change to the N.C. Constitution. N&O file photo

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus sent a strongly worded letter Wednesday urging U.S. senators to reject Thomas Farr, a Triangle-based attorney who has represented GOP state legislators in redistricting and voter ID cases, for a lifetime seat on the federal bench.

The letter to the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, signed by U.S. Reps. G. K. Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson, and Cedric L. Richmond, chairman of the Black Caucus, highlights Farr’s work defending North Carolina redistricting maps and election-law overhauls that since have been overturned by the federal courts.

In 1992, as a lawyer for the re-election campaign of Jesse Helms, the former Republican senator from Raleigh who died in 2008, Farr was part of the defense against U.S. Justice Department complaints of voter intimidation after postcards were sent to 100,000 black voters telling them they were ineligible to vote and might be arrested if they tried, the Black Caucus members said.

“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,” Democratic Reps. Butterfield, Richmond, John Conyers of Michigan and Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., wrote in the letter. “We believe that Mr. Farr’s record raises serious questions regarding his commitment to equal justice under the law that disqualifies him from service on the federal bench. ”

The members of Congress also raised concerns about Farr’s work on employment discrimination cases.

Farr went before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in a meeting led by Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican who was in the N.C. General Assembly when legislators approved the redistricting maps that have been found by the federal courts to include unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

When asked about the cases, Farr offered explanations similar to arguments he made in court, saying that when the maps were adopted North Carolina lawmakers considered race in an effort to comply with the Voting Rights Act. He offered a similar explanation when asked about the voter ID law that a panel of 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges said targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.”

Farr, one of five judicial candidates before the committee on Wednesday, was introduced by Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem, who played a role in making the judicial seat that Farr is up for the longest-running federal district court vacancy in the country. President Donald Trump nominated Farr in July.

Farr had been nominated before – in 2006, shortly after U.S. District Judge Malcolm Jones Howard semi-retired, and again in 2007. But he never received Senate confirmation or a vote on his nomination.

Former President Barack Obama tried to bring racial diversity to the national bench of district judges and nominated two African-American attorneys – federal prosecutor Jennifer May-Parker and Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a former state Supreme Court member, to fill the seat in the 44-county Eastern District of North Carolina.

Though the Eastern District population is 27 percent African-American, there has not been a black judge on the bench.

In recent years, the NAACP and others have pushed for a black judge to be seated. But that process has been stalled in the U.S. Senate because Burr never presented the necessary paperwork to move the nomination process forward toward a hearing or vote.

The judges, who receive lifetime terms as stipulated by the U.S. Constitution, must receive confirmation by the Senate before the president can appoint his nominees.

“Knowing him personally, I can attest that he has the requisite expertise, character and judgment required for the federal bench,” Burr said Wednesday as he introduced Farr. “He’s a man who has earned the right to serve as a federal judge and who understands the privilege of receiving this appointment. He will serve in this role honorably, and it is my hope that he will get a swift confirmation by this committee and by the the U.S. Senate.

“The most important thing is: Tom Farr is a good man,” Burr said.

Farr told the senators at the judiciary committee meeting that he thought judges should interpret the laws without bringing their own ideologies to the cases before them. He also said that lawyers should represent their clients rigorously and sometimes were in positions of representing people or parties on issues and positions to which they might not personally ascribe.

When asking about the federal case that led to the recent redrawing of the districts used to elect state lawmakers, the senator posing the question quoted from an order released this week by a three-judge panel, calling the gerrymandering in North Carolina “among the largest racial gerrymanders ever encountered by a federal court.”

In response to the senator’s question about his defense of the maps and whether racial data should be considered in the drawing of legislative and congressional districts, Farr said: “Senator, I think that’s an evolving area of law.”

The Black Caucus is not the only group to raise concerns in the past week about giving Farr a seat on the federal bench, despite the attorney’s favorable rating from the American Bar Association.

The Alliance for Justice, a Democratic-leaning group, raised questions about his defense of the voter ID law and redistricting maps, as well as employment law cases in which he represented companies.

After the hearing, North Carolina AFL-CIO President MaryBe McMillan issued a statement of opposition to his appointment.

“These are not minor, partisan quibbles,” McMillan said. “Farr’s record goes directly against mainstream North Carolina. To put it bluntly, he is tainted by the anti-worker and anti-African-American positions he has taken the past four decades...”

The state NAACP also submitted a letter on Wednesday opposing Farr.

“In summary, Thomas Farr has been the lead attorney in attacking every modern effort in North Carolina to empower the state’s African American voters; and in most of case, he has been a public architect of the regressive and discriminatory backlash,” the Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the organization, said in the letter to judiciary members. “Based on his outspoken history and aggressive litigious style of opposing African Americans and the rights of the vulnerable, African Americans have no trust or faith that Thomas Farr can be independent, fair, and impartial in serving as a member of the esteemed federal judiciary.”

The judiciary committee closed its meeting after asking questions of the judicial candidates without voting on any of the nominees.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1