Obama yet to fill judicial vacancies in Atlanta

AJC Exclusive: No nominees for 4 federal bench spots

When President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the U.S. District Court in Atlanta had three judicial vacancies, giving the new president a chance to shape the federal bench here for years to come.

Yet more than a year into Obama's presidency those vacancies remain unfilled and, to the frustration of area lawyers, the White House hasn't submitted a single nominee. Moreover, Obama elevated Beverly Martin from district court to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, now leaving four vacancies for the busy Atlanta court, which is allotted 11 judges.

“It doesn’t make any sense at all,” said legendary Summerville attorney Bobby Lee Cook, a longtime donor to Democratic campaigns. “It should not take this long. These vacancies need to be filled. The other judges need the help. Litigants need to have judges who are available.”

In terms of vacancies and available judges, the U.S. District Court in Atlanta "is in the worst shape of anywhere else in the country," Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who tracks judicial nominations, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Obama had three immediate vacancies to fill after judges Jack Camp, Clarence Cooper and Orinda Evans announced last year they would become senior judges. They continue to take cases, at a reduced level, easing the situation. All of Martin's cases, however, had to be distributed to judges on the court when she left to the appeals court.

"When you have four vacancies like we do now it has a fairly profound effect," James Hatten, the U.S. District Court clerk in Atlanta, said.

White House spokesman Adam Abrams said Obama steadily has nominated well-qualified judicial candidates with diverse backgrounds who will respect the law and understand how the law impacts lives.

"The president has moved swiftly to fill vacancies considered to be judicial emergencies and the pace of nominations overall has significantly increased in the new year," he said. "When brought to a floor vote, the president's nominees have passed with strong bipartisan support."

The administration has picked up the pace of judicial nominees. Since Congress reconvened on Jan. 20, the White House has nominated 16 judicial nominees; it submitted 32 judicial nominees in all of 2009.

Early last year,  Georgia's Democratic congressmen appointed an advisory committee to take applications for the vacancies, screen them and submit lists of recommendations for each of the three vacancies. The panel sent the congressional delegations its lists on April 15. The delegation forwarded its recommendations to the White House in early May.

"We've been disappointed and frustrated it's taken so long, especially in Atlanta where there are so many vacancies," Atlanta lawyer George "Buddy" Darden, who chaired the advisory panel, said.

The White House might be on the verge of nominating at least one lawyer to fill one of the four judicial vacancies in Atlanta. The administration has begun vetting Amy Totenberg as a possible nominee, according to lawyers familiar with the judicial nomination process.

Totenberg, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1977, now works as a private mediator and arbitrator. She served as general counsel to the Atlanta Board of Education from 1994 to 1998 and was a part-time Atlanta Municipal Court judge prior to that. In 2000, she was appointed special master to oversee and monitor a longstanding special education lawsuit in Baltimore. Her sister is Nina Totenberg, NPR's legal affairs correspondent.

Amy Totenberg did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The U.S. District Court has jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases across a 46-county area in North Georgia. It has courthouses in each of its four divisions: Atlanta, Gainesville, Newnan and Rome. Listed below are the court's judges with the presidents who appointed them.

Chief Judge Julie Carnes -- President George H.W. Bush (1992)

Harold Murphy -- President Jimmy Carter (1977)

Thomas Thrash -- President Bill Clinton (1997)

Richard Story -- Clinton (1998)

Charles Pannell -- Clinton (1999)

Bill Duffey -- President George W. Bush (2003)

Tim Batten -- Bush (2005)