Jesse Helms’ Personal Court


The U.S. 4th Circuit Court holds a number of dubious distinctions. The Richmond, Va.-based appeals court last year barred school officials in the region from undertaking even voluntary desegregation efforts. It also in effect nullified the Supreme Court’s 1966 Miranda decision, which required police to warn suspects of their rights; last month, the Supreme Court decisively reversed that reinterpretation. The appeals court, which deals with five Southern states, is the nation’s only all-white court of its kind, although the region it serves has the largest African American population of any circuit. And, to the detriment of Americans, the 4th Circuit appears to be Sen. Jesse Helms’ personal court.

President Clinton--as he noted in his Thursday speech to the convention of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People--has tried for seven years to appoint a black judge to one of the four vacancies on the 15-member court. None of his nominees, all moderate lawyers or judges, have gotten so much as a hearing in the Senate.

Helms (R-N.C.) has been the major roadblock. Under Judiciary Committee rules, a single senator can privately veto a judicial nominee from his home state. Helms has used that power to send the nominations of three North Carolinians into the deep freeze, including, last year, that of state appeals Judge James A. Wynn Jr., a respected moderate.


Early on, Helms construed his vetoes as payback to Democrats who stalled a nominee he favored in 1992. More recently, in a meeting with Wynn, he echoed the circuit’s chief judge, who insists the court doesn’t need any more judges. But there is really no excuse for such obstructionism.

To break Helms’ juggernaut over any North Carolina nominee, Clinton sent the name of a Virginian, Roger L. Gregory, a black attorney, to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. But with the November elections looming, the Senate could stall the nomination until Clinton leaves office, which would be just as reprehensible as Helms’ veto.

The point is not just that an African American judge should be on a court that serves so many African Americans. It is also that the president, exercising his constitutional authority, has submitted nominees he deems worthy and the Senate at least owes them the courtesy of a hearing.