It is rare enough that we have one of the most significant figures in Durham’s history present to the club but even rarer still to have two in a row. Last week it was Dr. Ralph Snyderman who guided the Duke Medical Center as Chancellor for 15 years and this week Justice Willis Whichard.
Not only do these men still walk among us, both are Rotarians and Club members and both not only had an impact on Durham and North Carolina but on their professions.
Rotarian, lawyer and retired judge Nancy Gordon introduced Justice Whichard, who she described as a colleague, mentor and friend. Justice Whichard, as many know, is the only person to serve in both houses of the State Legislature as well as sit on the State Appellate Court and Supreme Court, where he was “incredibly well respected” according to Gordon.
When he left the bench at the Supreme Court level in 1998 he served as the Dean of the Campbell University Law School until he retired in 2006.
This background would have given him numerous topics to share with us but what he chose to talk about was his time after retiring from Campbell on the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Judiciary. This was especially timely because on Monday we got the word that our new president would announce his nomination to fill the vacant ninth seat on the United States Supreme Court the following evening.
Justice Whichard went through the process the committee uses to evaluate anyone that the President appoints to the Federal Judiciary. In involves reviewing opinions, background, and interviews with others in the profession that have dealt with the nominee. Integrity is always a big issue. Membership on the Standing Committee is an honor but also a major commitment of time.
The history of the committee goes back 64 years to the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower and only one president, George W. Bush, suspended the use of the committee to vet judicial appointments.
Justice Whichard, recounted that he had pretty much thought he was finished with his term when US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly a little less than a year ago, on February 13, 2016. When President Obama nominated Merritt Garland, the committee went into high gear to do the evaluation, which could only be described as honest-to-God extreme vetting.
Judge Garland passed with flying colors.
I don’t know Justice Whichard well, but the times I have encountered him or heard him speak, he seemed as even tempered and fair minded as you would expect a judge to be that had risen to his level of respect and prominence in his profession. Nevertheless, I think I detected a hint that he was a tad peeved when he recounted that a jurist like Merritt Garland who had served his country and profession so well for so many years, who when nominated for the highest bench in the land, was denied even a meeting with any of the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, much less hearings or a vote on his nomination.
Since I don’t trust my failing ears to get everything into my notes I often resort to Google to check things out. What I found was a page on the ABA website about the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary. There were three things there that were very interesting. The first was the explanation of the Well Qualified rating given Judge Garland. What was surprising in such a formal document was what were called a “few representative comments.” Three that stood out for me were “Garland’s integrity is off the scales;” “Garland is the best that there is. He is the finest judge I have ever met. There is no one who is his peer;” and really, can you do any better than, “He may be the perfect human being.” This is a 26-page document that goes on and on like that until you get to page 22 where they list the distinguished jurists and law professors that participated in the evaluation. You can find Justice Whichard on page 25.
The second interesting thing is a 30 page “backgrounder” describing the evaluation process. We got the condensed version from Justice Whichard but just skimming the document gives you a sense of how thorough these evaluations are.
Finally, there is a short video clip of President Eisenhower thanking the Standing Committee for its service in 1955. Like Justice Whichard, I remember Ike too. I have a short clip somewhere of him at the first political rally I ever attended. I was six or seven and my grandfather had taken me and shot the film. I like Ike… and Justice Whichard too.