A controversial judicial nominee Thomas Farr cleared a procedural hurdle in his path to confirmation for a seat in the Eastern District of North Carolina on Wednesday, after his bid became mired in controversy over his past record on voting rights.
His confirmation advanced after Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 Senate tie, clearing the way for a floor vote. All 49 Senate Democrats voted against cloture on Farr, with one Republican—outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona—joining the bloc. One closely watched vote—Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina—voted in favor of advancing Farr’s nomination.
If he joins the bench, Farr will leave a private practice job in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has worked as a shareholder at labor and employment law firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart since 2004. In 2016, he earned over $610,000 in income, according to a disclosure he filed last year.
Farr, whom President Donald Trump nominated in July 2017, has faced a firestorm of controversy throughout his nomination, largely revolving around his past defense of voting restrictions. The Congressional Black Caucus last year described Farr as “the preeminent attorney for North Carolina Republicans seeking to curtail the voting rights of people of color.”
Senate Democrats—with all 49 united in their opposition to Farr—only needed to pick off one additional Senate Republican on Wednesday to block his nomination. Flake had previously announced he would vote against Farr’s bid, holding out his vote until legislation meant to bolster special counsel Robert Mueller’s job security receives a Senate vote.
Since Farr was first nominated last year, civil rights and progressive legal groups have opposed him over what they describe as a record of hostility to voting rights. Critics have cited, for example, his defense of a 2013 North Carolina voter identification law. A Fourth Circuit panel struck down the law, finding it targeted black voters with “almost surgical precision.” The Supreme Court did not take up Farr’s appeal, which left the appeals court’s ruling intact.
Farr’s past work on the campaigns of former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, an opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, has also drawn scrutiny. Farr represented Helms’ campaign in 1992, when it sent postcards to mostly African-American voters that the Justice Department later said were designed to intimidate them from going to the polls.
“It is no exaggeration to say that had the White House deliberately sought to identify an attorney in North Carolina with a more hostile record on African-American voting rights and workers’ rights than Thomas Farr, it could hardly have done so,” members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote in their letter to the U.S. Senate last year, opposing his nomination.
“We believe that Mr. Farr’s record raises serious questions regarding his commitment to equal justice under the law that disqualifies him from service on the federal bench,” they said.
The district court seat to which Farr has been nominated has been vacant since 2005, making it the country’s longest federal judicial vacancy.
President Barack Obama nominated two African-American woman to the seat during his tenure; however, Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina declined to return blue slips for either of those nominations, and neither received confirmation hearings during their nominations.
President George W. Bush previously nominated Farr to the seat, but his nomination did not advance under the then-Democratic majority in the Senate.