The Eastern District of North Carolina has had a vacancy in its court since 2005. It is currently the longest standing vacancy in United States history, and there are no clear signs that the seat is about to be filled. More pressingly, there has been little conversation about the open court seat in discussions of this state’s political framework. Hopefully the similar delay in appointment in the United States Supreme Court will drive the issue of court vacancies into national focus in this election cycle.
After Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February of this year, the matter of judicial confirmation was thrust into the spotlight of media coverage. Due to the longevity of court appointments and efforts to de-politicize court decisions (nearly always unsuccessful, but a tenant of a balanced judicial system nonetheless) public investment with the courts tends to stay in the realm of political junkies and news aficionados unless it involves the Supreme Court.
This disinterest in the majority of the judicial branch is a mistake. Examination of the political tides that influence the three branches of our political system, questions of which branch exerts the most influence commonly arise. Between the legislative and executive branches the contest to accomplish objectives drives powerful fissures between congress and the president, partisan interests and between the political process and the people. All those conflicting interests in laws have the potential to end in courts for interpretation. While the courts make an effort to remain aloof from political in-fighting there seems to be little question that for policy matters the buck stops at the courts.
All judicial cases, not only those heard by the highest court in the land, have definitive impacts on the lives of citizens and the framework of this country. So the matter of who is appointed to these courts remains an important question that citizens should consider. Political desires to sway the outlook of a court through appointment are a natural offshoot of the political system, and one which executives from Governor to President have held. On equal footing can be the efforts of different legislative bodies to either encourage or corral these efforts through appointment. Through this, some sense of balance is maintained.
What is not acceptable is the failure to fulfill the most basic of governmental obligation to the judicial branch. Confirmation cannot be guaranteed for any suggested appointee, but the failure to consider filling the bench, whether in the Eastern District of North Carolina or in the Supreme Court of the United States reflects a perverse failure on the part of elected officials. The judicial branch has some of the most immediate impacts on the lives of everyone who resides within this nation, and the deliberate choice to weaken the third branch of our government veers close to dangerous negligence of the interests of the people.
The prioritization of partisan interests over filling gaps in the bench reflects a worrying trend in our political system. I can only hope that the spotlight of this election cycle throws these issues into sharper relief and brings about some good judgement.