Politics & Government

Obama nominates two N.C. judges

S.C. in position to lose a seat on 4th Circuit Court of Appeals

WASHINGTON - The nomination of two North Carolina judges to the nation's second-highest court could further a leftward push by President Barack Obama in shaping the federal judicial system.

The confirmations also would give the Tar Heel state the appeals court heft sought for years by the state's legal community and its senators in Washington. North Carolina now has just one resident on the 15-judge panel, which hears cases from five mid-Atlantic states.

Judges Jim Wynn of Cary and Albert Diaz of Charlotte were, as expected, nominated by Obama Wednesday to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If confirmed, they would bring the number of North Carolina seats to three.

Diaz would be the first Latino member of the 4th Circuit. He now serves as Special Superior Court Judge for Complex Business Cases in the Mecklenberg County Superior Court.

Wynn, who sits on the N.C. Court of Appeals, is entering his second confirmation process. President Bill Clinton nominated Wynn in 1999 to the same court, but that was blocked by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.

Both were rated well-qualified by the American Bar Association. And both are experienced civil judges who also served years in the military justice system.

Diaz worked in several legal roles during his Navy career. Wynn remains a captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve and is a certified military trial judge.

"They've spent a lifetime training for these positions," said Burley Mitchell, a Democrat and former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, said of Wednesday's nominations.

Wynn, an African-American, and Diaz would add to the court's diversity. They also might help tilt what has been known as the nation's most conservative appeals court, legal experts say.

Along with Wynn and Diaz, the Senate is considering two other nominees to the appeals court from Virginia and Maryland. The confirmation of all four Obama nominees could affect the 4th Circuit's makeup, both in diversity and ideology.

"For many years what was one of the most conservative circuits in the country would move most substantially in the liberal direction," said Arthur Hellman, a law professor and appellate court expert at the University of Pittsburgh.

"That assumes the nominees would be voting generally on the liberal side," he added.

Appeals courts play a critical role in the judiciary. The U.S. Supreme Court takes so few cases among those that are petitioned that the appeals courts end up as the final decision-makers in nearly all of the cases that come before them.

North Carolina has traditionally had two seats on the 15-member panel; one is currently vacant. If both Wynn and Diaz are confirmed, the state would have three members. South Carolina would lose one of its four seats in exchange.

Although states grumble about whether they get their fair share of judges on the 15-member court, the judges' home addresses have little impact.

"It doesn't matter as far as 99 percent of the issues," Mitchell said, though he supports North Carolina getting proportional representation.