My sources report that today Chief Judge William Wilkins sent a letter to President Bush announcing that he will take senior status effective July 1, 2007. Judge Karen Williams will become the next Chief Judge of the Fourth Circuit.
This could mark a major change in the circuit court that many observers regard as the most conservative. Right now, the Fourth Circuit is divided as follows:
Conservative: Chief Judge William W. Wilkins, Judge H. Emory Widener, Jr., Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, Judge Karen J. Williams, Judge Dennis W. Shedd.
Moderate: Judge William B. Traxler, Jr. (leans right), Judge Allyson K. Duncan (leans left)
Liberal: Judge M. Blane Michael, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, Judge Robert B. King, Judge Roger L. Gregory.
Labels are difficult, depending on the issue. For example, with "tough on crime" issues, one could easily put Judges King and Traxler (both former prosecutors) with the conservative judges. And Nixon appointee Judge Emory Widener is known to march to the beat of his own drummer, especially in the last few years. But, the above is about the best we can do as a general matter.
With Wilkins stepping down, the core conservatives on the Fourth Circuit are left with 4 solid votes.
Beginning July 1, 2007, there will be five vacancies on the Fourth Circuit. Depending on how those seats are filled, the Fourth Circuit could be very different in the years to come.