When Neil Gorsuch accepted his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday night, he tipped his hat to three former mentors, including a one-time Charlotte attorney and judge.
“If you’ve ever met Judge David Sentelle, you’ll know just how lucky I was to land a clerkship with him right out of school,” Gorsuch said, nodding in Sentelle’s direction.
If confirmed by the Senate, Gorsuch – like Sentelle – would fill the shoes of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died a year ago.
Gorsuch was nominated by President Donald Trump to fill Scalia’s vacancy. Sentelle was a federal judge in North Carolina when President Ronald Reagan elevated him in 1987 to the District of Columbia appeals court to replace Scalia, who’d been nominated for the Supreme Court.
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Sentelle is a Haywood County native who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and from UNC law school in 1968. Two years later he became an assistant U.S. attorney in Charlotte. He was elected state district judge in 1974 and left in 1977 for private practice, where he stayed until Reagan appointed him to North Carolina’s U.S. District Court in 1985.
Five years ago, Justice Clarence Thomas came to Charlotte for the unveiling of Sentelle’s portrait at the federal courthouse. He joined dozens of current and former federal judges and lawyers in honoring Sentelle.
“In Judge Sentelle I discerned a fellow displaced Southerner,” Thomas told the gathering, adding that he and Sentelle shared an interest in NASCAR and country music, even an affinity for dropping verbs.
“It was OK to say, ‘Where you from?’ and ‘Who you people?’” Thomas said. “Judge Sentelle has never forgotten his Southern roots North Carolina’s loss has been the nation’s gain.”
Sentelle served as chief judge of the D.C. court, taking senior status in 2013.
Phil Van Hoy, a longtime Charlotte attorney, described his friend as “brilliant.”
“But you wouldn’t know it until you get to know him,” Van Hoy said, “because he’s so down-to-earth and unassuming.”
On Tuesday night Sentelle found himself in good company.
He was one of three mentors Gorsuch recognized in accepting Trump’s nomination. The others were former Supreme Court Justice Byron White and current Justice Anthony Kennedy.