Battle Lines Drawn Over Clinton’s Appointment of Black Judge to 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Washington
P resident Clinton late last month appointed Virginia lawyer Roger Gregory to the all-White 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
And it didn’t take long for conservative members of the U.S. Senate to undertake the task of keeping the 4th Circuit record of Black exclusion intact.
Sen. James M. Inhoe, R-Okla., vowed that he would block any effort to have Gregory named to fill the 10-year-old vacancy. He called Clinton’s move an abuse of power. He also said it was “outrageously inappropriate for any president to fill a federal judgeship through a recess appointment in a deliberate effort to bypass the Senate.”
On Dec. 27, in a bold move, Clinton took advantage of a congressional recess to appoint an African American to the most conservative court in the federal appellate judiciary. This was the first time in 20 years that a president has filled a judicial opening with a recess appointment, which allows him to seat a candidate while Congress is out of session.
“It is unconscionable that the 4th Circuit has never had an African American appellate judge,” Clinton said during his announcement. “It is long past time to right that wrong. Justice may be blind, but we all know that diversity in the courts, as in all aspects of society, sharpens our vision and makes us a stronger nation.”
Gregory, a 47-year-old Richmond corporate attorney, finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes political confrontation between Clinton and his senate judiciary committee nemesis Jesse Helms, R-N.C. Helms has used his position as committee chair to foil the nominations of three other African Americans nominated by Clinton to fill appellate vacancies, including the vacancy in the 4th Circuit, which is the longest standing vacancy in the federal appellate system.
Gregory’s appointment will remain in place at least until next October or November unless the full Senate confirms him earlier. However, Clinton said he will also formally nominate Gregory a second time in January when the new Congress convenes.
The 4th Circuit, which serves Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas, has a larger minority population than any other circuit but no minority judges. It is notorious for adjudicating several landmark cases affecting the rights of African Americans. The University of Maryland’s Banneker Scholarship program for African American students and the city of Richmond’s Minority Contracting program were both struck down by this court. These decisions were left intact by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Alice Gresham Bullock, dean of the Howard University School of Law, expressed misgivings about ongoing claims by the 4th Circuit that the vacancy need not be filled.
“I’ve found that very suspicious. The dockets for all the circuits are very overloaded,” Bullock told Black Issues. “It has only been during the last eight years that this assertion has been presented. I don’t know Mr. Gregory but Elaine Jones of the [NACCP] Legal Defense Fund endorses him and Clinton has demonstrated that he does not make Clarence Thomas types of appointments.”
After graduating from
Virginia State University and the University of Michigan’s law school, Gregory taught business law at VSU, a historically Black institution. He was also a law partner of former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected African American governor.
“His awareness of the unique strengths of HBCUs will be very important,”says Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert.
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