Conrad at center of partisan fight

U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad of Charlotte is either an arbitrator so honest that he would rule against his own brother or a conservative extremist who would “turn the clock back” on people's rights.

Whether his friends or foes are correct – or the truth is somewhere in between one thing seems certain: He is no closer to sitting on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, or even getting a confirmation hearing, than he was on the day President Bush nominated him a year ago.

The vacancy – the longest in the nation at 14 years – remains mired in a partisan battle among senators and the White House over who should become federal judges.

The Richmond-based court has more openings, with four, than any other circuit. Three of the vacancies are labeled “judicial emergencies,” based on the time they've been vacant and the number of cases filed.

Although the court actually clears cases more quickly than its counterparts with the help of visiting judges, it is less likely to hear oral arguments and issue published opinions. And the panel doesn't reflect the makeup of the region it represents – only one of the judges on the 15-seat 4th Circuit is from North Carolina, though it's more populous than the other states served by the court – South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

“It's outrageous,” Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., said last week after participating in a media event to draw attention to the matter.

At another event a few weeks ago, some of Conrad's friends and former colleagues showed up on Capitol Hill to talk about his devotion to the law and his family and community. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Bell told of the time during high school that Conrad was asked to umpire his brother's baseball game.

“In one of those bottom-of-the-ninth kinds of situations, as his younger brother rounded third and headed toward home in a bang-bang play, umpire Conrad ruled him out, much to his family's consternation,” said Bell. After the game, Bell said, his father didn't want to drive the elder son home from the game.

Such glowing recommendations – coupled with a “unanimous well qualified” rating by the American Bar Association – are part of Republican efforts to paint Conrad as the victim in a fight dating to the early 1990s.

But Conrad, who would take the slot vacated by Judge James Dickson Phillips Jr. of Chapel Hill in 1994, is not without critics.

Liberal judicial advocacy groups cite a record of “radical right wing positions,” including arguing for the death penalty and opposition to abortion. In 1988, the then-lawyer wrote an opinion piece for the Observer criticizing “abortionists” at Planned Parenthood.

“If they want a fast, easy confirmation, they ought to suggest a candidate who's both qualified and committed to equal justice,” said Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, which opposes Conrad's confirmation.

Conrad, a former federal prosecutor and an academic All-American as a basketball player at Clemson, wouldn't talk about his nomination.

An old grudge

The dispute started in 1991 when Bush's father nominated Terrence Boyle, Sen. Jesse Helms' choice to fill an opening on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Senate Democrats wouldn't consider Boyle for the lifetime job, and in retaliation, Helms quashed all of President Clinton's nominees.

“We want some redress for the mistreatment of our nominee by the Democrats,” Helms told the Observer during that time.

When the current President Bush took office, he repeatedly nominated Boyle to fill the vacancy – and year after year, Democrats blocked the choice.

In 2007 Bush gave up on Boyle and nominated Conrad, but no confirmation hearing has been set in the last year.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, defended his record of approving Bush's nominees and reminded Carolina senators that he helped approve the only N.C. juror on the circuit, Judge Allyson Duncan.

“We could have made even more progress in North Carolina if we had not wasted over six years of the committee's time debating President Bush's repeated nomination of Terry Boyle,” Leahy said in a letter to senators in both Carolinas..

Boycott and accusations

On Thursday, the one-year anniversary of Conrad's nomination, Republicans staged a boycott of a Judiciary Committee meeting because Leahy hadn't scheduled any confirmation hearings before Congress recesses for the November election – and a possible Barack Obama presidency that would result in Democrat-friendly nominees.

“They are doing nothing more than burning down the clock, having dreamt up every stalling tactic in the book to prevent qualified Americans from serving on the federal bench,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

Several GOP senators also spoke on the Senate floor.

“We will not have better nominees than Judge Conrad,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.