The Obama administration came under sharp criticism Monday from powerful House Democrats and some in the civil rights community over the president’s picks to fill four judicial vacancies on Georgia’s Northern District federal bench.
On Monday, Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat widely revered for his work during and after the civil-rights movement, appeared at a news conference in Atlanta alongside other House Democrats in a fiery protest of President Obama’s nominees.
Three of the four nominees are white; one, Eleanor Ross, is black but was appointed to her current state court post by a Republican, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. Mr. Lewis and his coalition also have taken issue with the nominations of Mark Howard Cohen and Michael Boggs.
As a state legislator, Mr. Boggs in 2001 voted against changing the Georgia state flag to remove the Confederate battle emblem.
Mr. Cohen, meanwhile, defended Georgia’s controversial voter-identification laws against legal challenges. Such laws are seen by critics as disproportionately affecting minority voters and as part of a larger effort to keep them away from the polls.
Those complaints and others caused Mr. Lewis and other traditional supporters of the president to erupt in anger on Monday, going so far as to suggest that black trailblazers who came before Mr. Obama would condemn the nominations.
“Martin Luther King Jr., if he were here this day, he would tell the president not to make these appointments,” said Rep. David Scott, Georgia Democrat, during the news conference.
To further drive home the point, the event was held inside Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor.
“We recognize that somebody in his administration has done [the president] a disservice in giving him these names and he made a mistake in accepting them,” said Rev. Joseph Lowery, another civil-rights leader and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mr. Lowery made his comments on CNN following the news conference.
Mr. Scott, Mr. Lowery and others also object to the fact that the administration appears to have caved to Republican pressure. Only one of the four nominees, Democratic attorney Leigh Martin May, wasn’t personally approved by Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, according to reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and elsewhere.
Analysts say such agreements are commonplace in politics, even as it relates to judicial appointments.
But this particular instance is problematic because of the race factor, and the fact that the White House has found itself in the rare spot of coming under fire from civil-rights leaders, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who specializes in federal judicial selections.
“I think there’s always side deals. There are always compromises to be brokered. But this one, I think, is particularly thorny because of the diversity and racial issues involved. The president has been very strong about diversity on the bench. That’s what makes this surprising, this group of nominees.”
Indeed, Mr. Obama previously has been praised for increasing diversity on the federal bench, including his efforts to install more female Supreme Court justices.
The president nominated two women, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, to serve on the high court; with veteran Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg still on the bench, the Supreme Court includes more women than ever before.
Despite a strong record on judicial diversity, Mr. Obama clearly is not immune from criticism from supporters who contend that he should have chosen more minority candidates and shouldn’t have played ball with Republicans.
How great a role politics played in the selections isn’t entirely clear, but the president has work to do with Senate Republicans on the issue of judicial nominations. GOP lawmakers remain angry with both the administration and Senate Democrats over the so-called “nuclear option,” a recently invoked legislative tool that allows prospective judges and other presidential nominees to clear the chamber with just 50 votes.
Moving forward, Mr. Tobias said the uproar could fade away, or it could remain at the forefront if civil-rights leaders such as Mr. Lewis don’t think their voices have been heard loudly enough.
“It would be quite a spectacle if John Lewis shows up at the [Senate] hearings to protest these nominees,” Mr. Tobias said.