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Four of the 12 seats on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals are currently vacant. All four vacancies are “judicial emergencies,” which means that the Eleventh Circuit is now operating without enough judges to properly handle its caseload. That alone creates an urgent need to fill these empty seats. But it is also vital—in the Eleventh Circuit in particular—to appoint judges with both personal and professionally diverse backgrounds who will provide justice equally to all litigants, and who will represent the diverse citizenry that appears before them.
The Eleventh Circuit is the second youngest federal court of appeals in the country. It was created in 1981 when Congress removed Alabama, Georgia, and Florida from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and placed them under the umbrella of a new appellate court. (For this reason, Fifth Circuit cases decided before 1981 remain binding precedent in the Eleventh Circuit.) Because the United States Supreme Court hears so few cases, the Eleventh Circuit is effectively the court of last resort in these states, and has the final word in all areas of federal law. For most of its history, judges appointed by Republican Presidents have held a majority among the Eleventh Circuit’s members (when President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Republican-appointed judges held a 7-5 majority). In addition, the party of each nominating president only partly explains the court’s composition, because some judges appointed by Democrats have ruled with a conservative judicial philosophy, at least on certain issues. The result is a body of law that tends to limit the rights of those who most depend on the fair provision of justice—employees and consumers, criminal defendants, victims of discrimination—and that favors wealthy and more powerful litigants.
The court’s membership also has a striking lack of racial diversity. Although 25% of people who live within the Eleventh Circuit are African American (more than any other circuit), the court has only one African American judge, Charles R. Wilson. In fact, Judge Wilson’s predecessor, Judge Joseph Hackett, is the only other African American to ever sit on the Eleventh Circuit, and he had been reassigned to the court at its creation in 1981. That means that Judge Wilson is the only African American ever appointed to the Eleventh Circuit, and that the Eleventh Circuit has precisely the same number of black judges now, in 2014, that it did over 30 years ago.
In the Eleventh Circuit, the President has nominated three people so far to fill the four current vacancies: Robin Rosenbaum from Florida, and Jill Pryor and Julie Carnes from Georgia. Jill Pryor was nominated in February 2012 to a seat that has been empty since 2010, but Georgia’s Republican Senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, have withheld their support and stalled her nomination. Julie Carnes, a U.S. District Judge in the Northern District of Georgia, was first appointed to the federal bench by Republican President George H.W. Bush. Her elevation to the court of appeals is part of a nomination package that includes four nominees to district court vacancies in Georgia, and that would reportedly let Jill Pryor’s nomination move forward. Some advocacy groups, along with members of Georgia’s Democratic congressional delegation, have argued that this package lacks sufficient diversity (only one of the six nominees is African American), and have publicly criticized some of the district court nominees for their records as state judges, legislators, and lawyers. The fourth vacancy, for which there is not yet a nominee, is an Alabama seat that opened when Judge Joel Dubina took senior status last year.
If the President successfully fills all four vacancies, Democratic appointed judges on the Eleventh Circuit will have gone from a 7-5 minority to a 9-3 majority during his Administration. And if even one African American judge is confirmed, the court will have more black judges than it has ever had before. Of course, the ultimate impact of new judges depends in large part on the current roster of jurists they will join. In this report, the Eleventh Circuit’s eight active judges and their judicial records are profiled in order of seniority. The three pending nominees are also profiled in order of nomination.