Eleventh Circuit Courthouse

In an op-ed in, Leslie Proll, the director of LDF’s Washington D.C. offices urges Alabama to fill vanancies on the state’s federal bench noting that the state has never had a federal appellate judge of color. “It is time to desegregate Alabama’s delegation on the federal appellate bench,” Proll writes.

Vacancies must be filled on Alabama’s federal bench: guest opinion

By Leslie M. Proll

With their Senate seats assured for the foreseeable future, Alabama Senators Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby should use the Congressional recess before the November elections to help fill the vacancies on Alabama’s federal bench. 

While the president nominates federal judges, the Senate’s role is to “advise and consent.”  Home-state senators hold significant influence over judicial nominations; their cooperation can make the difference in securing immediate and historic appointments.

Three vacancies currently exist — one on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and two on Alabama’s federal district courts.  Each pending for more than a year, these vacancies should be filled promptly. With fewer judges on the courts, the wheels of justice move slowly and litigants are denied full and timely review of their cases.     

Filling the opening on the Eleventh Circuit is essential.  The court, which sits one level below the United States Supreme Court, hears appeals from Alabama, Georgia and Florida.  Because so few cases are considered by the Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit is often the court of last resort.  

Although 12 judges sit on the Eleventh Circuit, Alabama is allotted only three seats.  But one of these seats has been vacant since Montgomery-based Judge Joel Dubina assumed senior status in September 2013.  This vacancy is now considered a “judicial emergency” by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

With one of its three slots unfilled, Alabama is underrepresented on the Eleventh Circuit.  This means that Alabama judges are less likely to sit on the three-judge panels that initially hear cases and have less influence when the Court sits “en-banc,” meaning that a case is important enough to require review by all 12 judges.

Promoting racial diversity must be a top consideration in selecting the next nominee for the Eleventh Circuit.  This Circuit has the highest percentage of African-American residents (25%) of any circuit in the country, yet only one of its twelve judges is African-American.  

Racial diversity on the bench need not be a partisan issue.  Everyone should be committed to creating a judiciary that reflects the population it serves.  A diverse bench enhances judicial decision-making. It also promotes public confidence and trust in the judicial system, which can always be improved upon.  A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 68 percent of African-Americans viewed the court system as unfair, in comparison to 27 percent of whites.

Alabama is long overdue in sending an African-American judge to the Eleventh Circuit.  Since 1891, only white males have represented Alabama on its federal appellate court.  With the rich diversity among Alabama’s bench and bar, it is time to desegregate Alabama’s delegation on the federal appellate bench.   Southern states including Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia and Florida have achieved this milestone in their respective circuits.  Why not Alabama?        

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