Biden to fill vacancy on Atlanta-based federal appeals court

11th Circuit Judge Charles R. Wilson to take senior status
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

President Joe Biden has a second opportunity to select a judge for the federal appeals court based in Atlanta, after its longest-serving judge announced he intends to take senior status.

Judge Charles R. Wilson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit sent Biden a letter on Jan. 19 announcing his plan to vacate his seat upon confirmation by the U.S. Senate of his successor, a court spokesperson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They said Wilson will continue to serve as a full-time judge on the court at least until the end of the year.

Biden has yet to announce his nominee for Wilson’s replacement.

Carl W. Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who specializes in federal judicial selection, said he expects Biden and the Democrat-led Senate will move quickly to secure Wilson’s replacement ahead of the presidential election in November.

Tobias said the 11th Circuit is considered to be one of the most conservative federal appellate courts in the country, in large part because former President Donald Trump was able to appoint six of its 12 current judges.

“The president has a great opportunity to confirm someone who will be younger than Wilson is now and serve for decades at least,” Tobias told the AJC. “I expect them to move very expeditiously to fill that vacancy and any other appellate vacancies around the country that arise.”

The first judge Biden appointed to the 11th Circuit, which hears federal cases from Georgia, Florida and Alabama, was Nancy G. Abudu. Her confirmation by the Senate came in May.

Wilson, who has served on the court since 1999, was appointed by former President Bill Clinton. He’s one of five active 11th Circuit judges appointed by Democratic presidents. Judges Adalberto Jordan, Robin S. Rosenbaum and Jill A. Pryor were appointed by former President Barack Obama.

The court will continue to be considered conservative-leaning with seven judges appointed by Republican presidents, including the six who gained their seats under Trump. Chief Judge William H. Pryor Jr., who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, is “quite conservative,” Tobias said.

Biden is likely to continue his practice of appointing judges who increase diversity on the bench, Tobias said. He said two thirds of Biden’s judicial nominees to date have been ethnically diverse and two thirds have been women.

“Biden has been very clear about diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ideology and especially experience,” Tobias said. “And so I would think that it would be someone who’s diverse in some of those ways.”

Wilson and Abudu are the 11th Circuit’s only Black judges. The court has six women judges.

Wilson, whose primary chambers are in Florida, will join nine other senior judges of the court.

It’s likely Wilson’s replacement will also come from Florida, Tobias said. He said Biden could also choose to elevate a federal trial court judge to ensure a swift confirmation process and create another judicial vacancy.

“It’s easier to do because the person has already been confirmed by the Senate, has been through the process, has had all the checks done,” he said. “And you have a record, and it’s accessible, of how the judge did on the district bench, so you can expedite those people much more quickly.”

Federal judges generally have lifetime appointments. They can take senior status after serving at least 10 years, and can choose to handle a reduced caseload as senior judges. Even if a judge continues to handle a full caseload as a senior judge, their change in status prompts a vacancy on the bench.

Tobias said that Trump was able to appoint “an inordinate number” of federal judges during his presidency, and that Biden is working to catch up.

Wilson, 69, has been involved in several of the 11th Circuit’s high profile decisions of late.

In October 2022, he and two other judges ruled that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham had to testify before the Fulton County special purpose grand jury investigating Trump and his allies for possible interference with Georgia’s 2020 elections.

In December 2022, Wilson authored an opinion that required a federal trial judge to reconsider whether the COVID-19 policies of the Cobb County School District adequately protected the rights of students with disabilities.

And in September, Wilson disagreed with two of his Trump-appointed colleagues in a race discrimination case against Atlanta-based venture capital firm Fearless Fund over its grants program for Black women business owners. In a six-page dissent, Wilson said a federal trial judge in Atlanta rightly allowed Fearless Fund’s program to continue amid a challenge from a conservative nonprofit.

Before becoming a federal appellate judge, Wilson spent five years as the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida. He had also served as a federal magistrate judge and a state court judge in Florida, and worked in private practice as a solo practitioner.

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