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Chief Judge William Wilkins, who has presided over the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit for the past four years, sent President George W. Bush a letter last week announcing his plans to step down in June. “I’ve had it for a good while now and it’s time to move on,” Wilkins tells Legal Times. Though Wilkins, a South Carolina native who will turn 65 in March, will still hear cases as a senior judge, his quasi-retirement creates a fourth official vacancy on the 15-member bench. (Technically, there are five openings, but Judge H. Emory Widener Jr., who announced plans to retire in 2003, has pledged to stay active until the nominee for his seat � Defense Department general counsel William Haynes II � is confirmed.) The large number of vacancies during a Republican administration is particularly striking given the 4th Circuit’s reputation as one of the most stalwart conservative courts in the nation. The circuit, which covers Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North and South Carolina, also is the key appellate arena for the administration’s terrorism cases, largely prosecuted in the Eastern District of Virginia. “You’d think they’d want to fill them and fill them as quickly as possible,” says Arthur Hellman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Though the Bush administration has tried to fill a few open seats, it has faced stiff opposition even during the Republican-controlled Congress. U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle’s nomination to the 4th Circuit has languished since 2001, and senators have blocked Haynes’ confirmation over questions about his involvement with the Justice Department’s infamous “torture memo.” It’s unlikely the administration will fare any better under the incoming Democratic-controlled Congress. So the question some court watchers are asking is whether future picks to the 4th Circuit could inch this reliably conservative bench closer to the center. “A lot of people have said this is a lost opportunity for the Bush administration, because it has been considered quite a conservative court, and they haven’t been able to confirm their nominees,” says Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected]

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