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Allyson Duncan has been a judge, a law professor, and is now president of the North Carolina Bar Association. But the one thing she’s never been is controversial — and that could secure her a seat on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. For the first time in more than 20 years, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a confirmation hearing last week for a North Carolina nominee for the federal appeals court. Duncan, who is a Republican, has managed to bridge the rancorous divide between the political parties that has kept North Carolina unrepresented in the 4th Circuit since the 1999 death of Judge Sam Ervin III. She has the imprimatur of both North Carolina’s senators — Elizabeth Dole, a fellow Republican, and John Edwards, a Democrat and a former trial lawyer. She received the highest rating from the American Bar Association. And, of course, she has the backing of President George W. Bush, who nominated her. North Carolina lawyers who know Duncan say they’re not surprised at the wide array of support she has been able to garner. If anyone could bridge the gap, they say, it’s Duncan. “She’s a consensus-builder,” says James Maxwell, a Charlotte trial attorney and Democrat who first got to know Duncan by appearing before her while she was a justice on the North Carolina State Court of Appeals. “She has never seemed to have an agenda,” Maxwell adds. “She is exceedingly open to ideas from what I call the right and the left and then charts her own way.” Raised in Durham, Duncan, 51, graduated first in her class from Hampton University and earned her law degree from Duke University Law School in 1975. Since then, she has had an unusually varied career. She clerked for Judge Julia Cooper Mack of the D.C. Court of Appeals before moving on to an eight-year run at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At the commission, Duncan began as an appellate attorney and later served as executive assistant to then-EEOC Chairman Clarence Thomas, with whom she maintains a friendship. She eventually became the agency’s legal counsel. Duncan moved back to North Carolina in 1986 to be closer to her family and to teach at North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham. During her time at the school, Duncan co-wrote a textbook on state appellate practice and won a teacher of the year award. In 1990, she became the first African-American woman to sit on the state appeals court, having been appointed by the governor to serve out a term. The next year, she was appointed to the North Carolina Utilities Commission. At the end of her eight-year term, she joined Atlanta-based Kilpatrick Stockton as a partner in its Raleigh office, where she focuses her practice on energy regulatory issues and government relations. If confirmed by the Senate, Duncan will be the first African-American woman to join the 4th Circuit bench. Through a law firm spokesman, Duncan declined to comment. J. Norfleet Pruden III, her immediate predecessor as president of the North Carolina Bar, says that one trait Duncan’s impressive r�sum� doesn’t reveal is her sharp ability to “tell the difference between someone who is blowing smoke at her and someone who is giving her a reason to make a particular decision.” Duncan’s r�sum� also lacks substantive experience in criminal law. Of course, many judges take the bench with little or no experience in either civil or criminal law. And J. Donald Cowan Jr., a partner with Raleigh’s Smith Moore and a Duncan supporter who attended the confirmation hearing last week, points out that Duncan heard criminal cases while on the state-level appellate bench. He notes, too, that in her work at the bar association Duncan has been actively involved in criminal justice issues. Specifically, Duncan has been participating in an ongoing project, initiated by North Carolina Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr., examining the state’s application of the death penalty. Duncan has not publicly expressed her views on the death penalty, nor was she asked about them during her June 25 confirmation hearing. Indeed, the committee seemed singularly disinterested in lobbing any tough questions her way. The only mildly challenging question came from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who asked what Duncan thought of the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the use of affirmative action in university admissions policies. Duncan’s response was politic. She said that while she had not yet had time to read the decision thoroughly, the decisions “provide additional guidance for the courts of appeals.” Sen. Edwards noted at the hearing that before nominating Duncan, President Bush “consulted with [Senator Dole and me], sought our advice, and selected a nominee who represents the mainstream of our state.” Maxwell, who is a partner in Durham’s Maxwell, Freeman & Bowman, mentions that he and others started getting calls about Duncan’s possible nomination about a year and a half ago. Duncan, he says, showed some of her skills a few years ago while co-chairing a bar task force on the role of women in the practice of law. The meetings were contentious, he says. Many of the older women in the group felt that the younger members weren’t adequately taking into account the struggles of their predecessors in the profession. Duncan, he says, managed to “let all sides be heard and still get through the agenda.” Both he and Pruden note that Duncan has a keen interest in opening doors for other people. She also “takes positive advantage of differences,” Pruden says. “I think that’s one reason why she is well-respected by people of different parties and races and genders.” In the January 2003 issue of Business Leader, Duncan revealed her motto: “With every opportunity, one has a chance to make a difference.” Neither the Alliance for Justice nor the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has taken a formal position on Duncan’s nomination. The Alliance for Justice opposes pending nominees for the 4th Circuit, Claude Allen and Terrence Boyle, both North Carolinians. Boyle was nominated by the first President Bush and renominated by the current president. Allen, currently second in command at the Department of Health and Human Services, began his career as a staffer for then-Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the lawmaker credited with blocking confirmation hearings for all four of President Bill Clinton’s North Carolina nominees to the 4th Circuit. Duncan’s husband, William Webb, is a federal magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina and has had a career in the criminal law sector complementary to Duncan’s on the civil law side. He, too, is an alumnus of the EEOC, where he was a commissioner. Webb also served as the federal public defender and as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. He was also deputy secretary in the North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. Pruden, a partner at Charlotte-based Kennedy Covington Lobdell & Hickman, says Duncan’s way of considering and distilling information would serve her well as a federal appellate judge. “She looks at all the angles,” he says. “I don’t know if I should say this publicly — I tease her about it all the time — but she’s very open-minded. She’s willing to listen and come out at a different place from where she started.” Pruden suggests that Duncan’s smooth sailing thus far through the often-turbulent confirmation process may not be the last time the Judiciary Committee considers her record and character. “She’s still young,” Pruden says. “She might have something still in front of her. She might sit on the Supreme Court someday.”

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